In distant Mirzapur, a village nestled on the border of northern Indian states Haryana and Rajasthan, 15-year-old Rajbala is a hero. She has completed the eighth grade. Her feat might not make the record books in many parts of the world, but in this Dalit (lower caste) Muslim community with a 0% literacy rate among women, Rajbala deserves the adulation. Until four years ago, only 15 children attended the local primary school — all of them boys. Just 20 had graduated since 1952. More recently, however, Room to Read, an international program focused on gender equality and educating children, worked in conjunction with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to put 575 children in school, 275 of them girls. This is the first generation of girls to attend school here since India achieved independence from British rule 63 years ago.

“It is gratifying to see these girls go into lower secondary and secondary schools,” says Sunisha Ahuja, Asia program director of Room to Read. “Almost 400 girls across India will be moving into grade 10. Our success rate to transition into the next grade is 95%. That’s huge.” The Girls’ Scholarship program is only one part of Room to Read’s ambitious agenda in India. The organization establishes bilingual libraries in existing government schools and publishes local language children’s literature.

Since its launch in India in 2003, Room to Read has set up 3,200 libraries in eight states (Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand), printed 620,000 books in five languages and provided scholarships to more than 2,000 girls. “Our India-specific vision for the next five years is to establish 6,000 libraries, publish 300 book titles in six languages and give 10,000 girls an education,” notes Ahuja.

But Room to Read’s efforts extend far beyond mere numbers. “It’s a vision that is not confined to the fact that children learn to read, but that they also use reading for learning, creativity and problem solving,” says Dhir Jhingran, global chief program officer for Room to Read India. For Jhingran, the most significant call to action for Room to Read in India has been a single insight: Although libraries are being established, many children do not possess the grade-appropriate reading skills to make the most of them. So Room to Read India is spearheading a pilot Primary Reading Enhancement Program that works with teachers to improve reading instruction in class rooms. Room to Read also conducts workshops for local writers and illustrators to generate content for its books. Children who have never seen a storybook in their own language now have a range of titles to choose from. “Storybooks translated directly from English are too urban for these kids,” Ahuja points out. “And this way, we engage the local community as well.”

Additionally, Room to Read supplements its Girls’ Scholarship program with life skills workshops that help recipients, who are often victims of deep-seated societal inequities, take control of their lives in the classroom and beyond. “I think there’s tremendous value that’s been created,” says Deval Sanghavi, president of Dasra, an organization that works with investors and NGOs to strengthen the effectiveness of the education sector. “It’s less about the metrics of whether you can read and write; it’s about creating a shift in these communities that education is valued and is a necessary aspect of development.”

If the true measure of philanthropy is its ripple effect, Room to Read is clearly raising the bar in each of the nine countries across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa it operates in. The program’s belief that “world change starts with educated children” and its mission to transform the lives of millions in developing countries has made India, with its large population and pervasive illiteracy, a priority for Room to Read. “With approximately 52% of students in India, the majority [of them] girls, dropping out before completing secondary school, coupled with U.N. estimates that 35% of the world’s illiterate population … live in India, the need for Room to Read’s sharpened focus in India has never been more crucial,” says Erin Ganju, CEO at the Room to Read global office in San Francisco.

High Accountability and Low Overhead

Founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood, Room to Read’s 10th anniversary this year coincided with the launch of its 10,000th library. Wood was inspired to establish the program after a trek to Nepal in 2000; his goal is to reach 10 million children in the developing world by 2015.

The organization is run like any other fast-growing company. “Our program itself is our biggest driver of growth, but our passionate people are our biggest strength,” says Dinesh Shrestha, a co-founder of Room to Read and human resources director for Asia. That commitment, coupled with rigorous systems and an emphasis on scale and sustainability, makes Room to Read’s blueprint a rarity in the Indian non-profit sector. “As soon as work begins on a project, we track it obsessively — whether it is books, furniture or teacher training — and give constant updates to our donors,” notes Ahuja. Assessments are conducted once a year to attain quantifiable measures of success. “As of 2009, 87% of library teachers were trained, 100% had book classification systems, [and] 100% had functional check-out systems,” says Ahuja. Even after Room to Read terminates its standard three-year engagement with libraries, there is a tapering-off of monitoring. Staff members meet with girls in the scholarship program every two weeks to check their attendance and medical status. “Our new strategic plan also focuses on tracking [our] impact on children — the number of books taken home, time spent reading at home and evaluation of reading skills,” adds Jhingran.

Room to Read also tries to maintain low overhead expenses and a flexible operating model. While the organization constructs schools in some countries, it decided not to do so in India. “The government spends 4% of GDP on education, which is a good number compared to other developing countries in Asia,” Jhingran points out. “We don’t want to duplicate the efforts the government is making.” Within India, Room to Read’s library formats are customized — there might be a library that takes up an entire room, one that occupies a corner of a classroom or simply a teacher bringing books to class. “That is how we contextualize our model, rather than ‘McDonaldizing’ it,” says Ahuja.

Room to Read libraries consist of books, furniture, puzzles, games and a trained librarian. The libraries are always part of a school, as opposed to a standalone facility. In countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, Room to Read raises money to construct school buildings and provides a library within them. In India, the program works within existing schools.

Working within Government for Bigger Impact

Perhaps the cornerstone of R2R’s operations is its “Challenge Grant” or co-investment model best rationalized by John Wood in his book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. He quotes management guru Michael Porter, who points out that customers of rental car businesses never wash the vehicles or do any other long-term maintenance because they don’t feel a sense of ownership. That’s why Wood feels that it is important for the local communities to feel invested in Room to Read’s projects.

Government intervention is also a non-negotiable element of Room to Read’s program implementation approach. The local community or partner organizations help to complete each project. This model, according to Jhingran, is the program’s biggest differentiator from other NGOs in India. Fauzia Khan, Maharashtra minster of state for school education, also believes that the “key toward NGO sustainability and scale in India is working within the existing government machinery.”

The starting point for Room to Read is a memorandum of understanding that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of all parties. For example, in Chhattisgarh, Room to Read had funds to set up reading rooms in only 85 schools. The government offered a co-investment solution: They matched Room to Read’s contribution of books and furniture, enabling the organization to cover all schools in the district. “This instance has given us great momentum in our dialogue with the SSA [Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Indian government’s flagship program under the United Nations’ Education for All effort]. Governments from other states have asked us to replicate it,” says Ahuja. In Mirzapur, parents partnered with Room to Read to buy fabric for school uniforms. The mothers brought their sewing machines to school and sewed over 200 uniforms. And since there was no mid-day meal program, the parents even provided food. Owing to Room to Read’s efforts, the government has now institutionalized a mandatory “library period” in school schedules. “Reading is a critical aspect in schools and must be catered to,” states Khan. “The government will always offer its resources as best as possible.”

At the same time, Room to Read’s biggest challenge may be in setting realistic goals when working with the government sector. “The Indian government wants us to scale our pilot literacy program very quickly,” notes organization co-founder Shrestha. “Right now, we are working in 150 schools. Based on my discussions, I anticipate the government will want us to cover the entire district while we may be able to focus only on a smaller number.” Funding is Room to Read’s other major challenge. “One of the problems for any international NGO is that people think that, if you are international, then you have money,” Sanghavi of Dasra points out.

Charity Begins at Home

Room to Read raised US$29 million in 2009, some 20% more than the target of US$24 million. India received US$4 million of those funds. Only a fraction of the total funds directed to India was raised in India; the rest was raised abroad — about 95% from Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States. The figures highlight the difficulties many foreign nonprofits have in raising money in India, notes, notes Sanghavi.

But for Laura Entwistle, Room to Read’s Mumbai fundraising chapter leader who was instrumental in the program’s being named the official charity partner for cricket’s Indian Premier League, there is hope in that statistic. “Indians are mortified when they hear that [fact], because they feel [the program] can raise the money here in India. My three-year goal for India is that the funding for the India program be generated entirely out of India.” Currently, funding largely comes from private donors, companies such as Goldman Sachs and Infosys, and foundations like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Room to Read has the advantage of extensive global recognition. “We were lucky to exceed our target by 20% in a bad economic year,” says Yashvinee Narechania, chapter leader of Room to Read’s global office. “I think our transparent price point helps — donors know exactly where their money is going.” Relatively little money goes a long way — US$250 pays for one girl to attend school for a year, US$1,000 funds the publication and distribution of 1,000 children’s books, and US$2,500 gives 150 students access to a fully stocked library.

The recent Right to Education Act (RTE) passed by the Indian government “will only increase the funding and the window of opportunity to partner even more strongly with the government,” says Jhingran. Some feel government initiatives, such as the RTE, might make organizations like Room to Read irrelevant. But others caution that it could take years for the legislation to empower those in need. By contrast, Room to Read provides an immediate and essential gateway toward “strengthening the government’s efforts to meet its goal of universalizing quality education for all children,” says Ganju.

Eventually, Room to Read plans to double its size to become a US$50 million organization. Gathering funds to keep pace with growth will prove difficult, skeptics say. Others feel it might take longer to change the social fabric of a country like India, with a legacy of illiteracy and discrimination against women. But then, at 35, John Wood gave up a seven-figure salary, a corner office at Microsoft and a glamorous expatriate lifestyle to pursue a vision for Room to Read that he had while trekking in the Himalayas. If skepticism had deterred him, Rajbala, the eighth grade graduate in Mirzapur, would perhaps not have had the confidence to smile widely and say: “I don’t want other girls to suffer like I did. I’m going to be a teacher when I grow up.”