The following is a conversation between Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: You can count on one hand, quite literally, the number of nonprofit organizations founded since 2000 that have surpassed $50 million in annual revenues. For an organization to achieve that milestone, they must have an extraordinary program, measurable results, and exceptional marketing and fundraising initiatives. And that description perfectly fits Room to Read, and it’s a pleasure to have with us their Chief Executive Officer, Geetha Murali. Good evening, Geetha, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Geetha: Hi, Denver. Nice to be here.
Denver: Give us a little bit of the history of Room to Read and your overall mission.
Geetha: Room to Read was founded in 2000 with a very simple goal of bringing books to children around the world. Since then, we’ve grown to reach over 20,000 communities, almost 12.4 million children, with a focus on literacy and gender equality and education.
Denver: What are some of the countries that you operate in?
Geetha: We work across 15 countries, primarily in Asia and Africa. The majority of our work is in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and more and more in Africa as well.
Denver: What are some of the literacy rates in those countries?
Geetha: If you look at a country like India, you’re talking about 36% of the world’s illiterate population sitting in that country, so these are countries where illiteracy is a primary barrier to a successful future.
…if we can get kids to learn how to read by grade 3, they’ll then learn how to learn, not just learn how to read… but to read to learn, which is our primary objective.
Denver: In Room to Read, you have two signature programs. You have the literacy program and the girls’ education program. Starting with the former, you placed an extraordinary emphasis on grades 1 and 2. Why is that the case, Geetha?
Geetha: Research shows us that if a child doesn’t learn to read by grade 3, the chances of them ever becoming literate drop considerably. Room to Read has focused its investments on grades 1 and 2 because we know that if we can get kids to learn how to read by grade 3, they’ll then learn how to learn, not just learn how to read… but to read to learn, which is our primary objective.
Denver: And you have something called the Level 1 book project. What is that?
Geetha: One of the things we found as we were circling the globe and looking at the gaps in the communities that we serve was that really young children don’t have access to early grade readers. So, Room to Read decided to focus its investments on the very early grades to ensure that these children have the materials they needed to learn how to love reading. So, Grade 1 projects really focus on those early grade readers all over the world.
Denver: Is there a fluency standard that you strive for to determine whether a child is on track to become a competent reader?
Geetha: We work in schools over a four-year period, and we do a baseline, midline, and endline along that period of time. We’re aiming for the international standard of 45 words per minute. More and more recently, Room to Read is focusing its research on understanding what the appropriate benchmarks are for the languages that we work in, which might not be the 45 words per minute that has been researched and is based on the English language. So, you’ll see more from us on that as well.
Denver: Very interesting.
You also have a lot of emphasis on the learning environment, and you think that’s a very important variable for a student to be successful. What are you doing to address that?
Geetha: We found that if a child learns how to read, and they don’t have an environment in which they can practice reading–developing a habit of reading as we call it– it makes it hard for them to continue to love reading and ultimately read to learn. So, Room to Read establishes libraries and schools alongside the work that we do in the classrooms so that children have the opportunity to go to the library, enjoy reading, get access to a number of different types of books, so that they can be inspired by whatever subject might suit them.
Denver: Do you work with teachers as well?
Geetha: Absolutely. Our field staff work all over the world; we’re 1600 strong, primarily working at the schools helping teachers train to be better at teaching how to read. They train them how to inspire children to love reading, and they’re in the classrooms coaching teachers to be the best that they can be. We’ve trained about 10,000 teachers a year through our programs.
Denver: How many literary partner schools do you currently have?
Geetha: We’ve worked across 20,000 schools, working through our own staff, and we’re now beginning to build huge partnerships across many other countries to ensure other organizations can run Room-to –Read-like programs in their own right.
Denver: Your other major program is girls’ education with a focus on seeing girls that finish secondary school. How many of the girls that you worked with actually complete that?
Geetha: We have focused on ensuring that girls complete secondary school with the life skills they need to be successful, and we’re really happy to report that about 70% of the girls in our program are graduating from secondary school and moving on to tertiary or employment, and this is in communities that typically have rates of closer to 20%.
Denver: What are some of the reasons that girls don’t finish secondary school?
Geetha: There are a variety of barriers to girls’ completion of school in the countries where we work. We see everything from girls being asked to stay home to take care of their younger siblings, to working in the fields to contribute to the family income, to being victims of trafficking and violence against women and teen pregnancy. So, there’s all kinds of different barriers, and we’re working to ensure that they have the tools they need to combat those challenges.
Denver: Do we know the impact on a girl for every additional year that she stays in school?
Geetha: Yes, we do. They estimate that for every additional year of school, a girl is able to raise an additional 10% to 20% in terms of her income. But in addition to that, these girls will have healthier families and children. They’ll have smaller families. They’ll be able to make better decisions on where they want to aspire to be in life.
Denver: This program has four very well-thought out components. I’m just going to ask you to say a word about each one. First is life skills, and I don’t think you automatically think about that when you’re talking about girls’ education, but you find it to be incredibly important.
Geetha: It is. Girls don’t only need academic support. They need the ability to navigate these challenges that they are being faced with from their communities and their families. Life skills training offers them tools around things like building self-confidence, persistence, resilience, critical thinking. Ultimately, being able to face any situation that they’re in and determine what’s best for their own futures.
In many of these communities, girls struggle to see role models, and it’s very hard to aspire to be something that you’ve never seen. Our local mentors provide role models to these girls. They help them think about their own futures. They tell them that they’ll not only be able to succeed, but they’ll be by their side while they do.
Denver: You also provide them with a local mentor. What role do they play?
Geetha: In many of these communities, girls struggle to see role models, and it’s very hard to aspire to be something that you’ve never seen. Our local mentors provide role models to these girls. They help them think about their own futures. They tell them that they’ll not only be able to succeed, but they’ll be by their side while they do.
Denver: Thirdly, based on need, you provide material support. What kind of support is that?
Geetha: We’ve found that some girls really struggle just to meet the basic requirements to go to school, tuition fees, sometimes bikes because of the huge distances they have to travel to get to school every day. Where we see that barrier facing these girls, we want to make sure that we’re providing them the support that they need to be able to address them.
Children really struggle to be able to be successful if the adults in their lives don’t support them.
Denver: I think we’re just beginning to realize that in this country that sometimes we’re trying to deal with education in the classroom, but usually it’s much more multi-faceted than that, and you’ve been ahead of the curve on that.
Finally, there’s a family and community engagement. What form is that?
Geetha: Children really struggle to be able to be successful if the adults in their lives don’t support them. So, Room to Read has spent quite a lot of time developing what we’ve called the challenge grant model, ensuring that schools and communities put their own sweat equity into the solutions that we’re providing so that they take ownership over the programs that Room to Read implements.
So, family and community engagement is our way of ensuring that there is buy-in from the community for the programs and support. So, we do everything from parent-teacher meetings to community events around big days like International Literacy Day or International Women’s Day, ultimately raising the profile of these issues in the community and making sure that these children have all the support they need to succeed.
Denver: Room to Read also has some close government relationships in places like Vietnam. Tell us about those partnerships with governments and the importance that they play in your model.
Geetha: Room to Read is committed to scale. So, all of our solutions are developed with a focus on the government ultimately adopting and integrating best practice across the country. So, our partnerships with governments are a critical part of our success. We work in the public school system, serving those children that need us most and wouldn’t have access to quality education through other means. So government support, buy-in, and investment are a critical part of our success and our plan for scale.
Denver: I mentioned in the opening that Room to Read is one of the youngest organizations ever to reach $50 million in annual revenue. You were the chief development officer before becoming CEO, so you know this area extremely well. What have you done to reach this level of support so quickly?
Geetha: Room to Read has always considered itself a learning organization, and an organization committed to the best quality programs and innovation to help learning outcomes be achieved. But we’re just as innovative and cutting edge with our fundraising, and we’re committed to learning and learning from our investors on what they like to invest in, to make sure that they feel that the mission is served as effectively as possible. We ensure that we’re diversified so that there’s no risk to the organization, ensuring that markets all over the world are seeing Room to Read’s brand in a way that translates to what means the most to them. And we’ve ensured that all types of donors– be it donors who like events, or donors who what to engage with our programmatic expertise, or donors who just want to run a marathon and do good in the world– have a way to access the organization.
Denver: Nice combination, and it certainly has worked.
Room to Read is known to be a very diverse organization in every sense of the word, including cognitive diversity. How has this multitude of perspectives helped the end product of what Room to Read delivers?
Geetha: Our team is made up of people from all over the world from diverse industries, all who are very passionate about education. We’re taking best practices from our diverse disciplines, and we live our values by improving lives. So, we’re personally invested in all the nations where we work, making sure that places from Tanzania to South Africa to Bangladesh and Cambodia are represented within our organizational structure and decisions; 87% of us are from the countries where we work.
Denver: Your workplace culture is founded on gender balance and integrity for all of your staff. How does that manifest itself at Room to Read?
Geetha: We are dealing with an incredibly complex problem around the world, and in order to solve for this problem– education for all– it’s a long-term investment, and it’s a hard road. So, it’s important that our staff not only understands the mission and gets motivated by the solutions we’re providing, but that they enjoy each other and the workplace and the hard work we’re doing together. All of our staff meetings… our internal communications are all tied to the mission and our core values as an organization.
Denver: Having recently assumed the CEO job, which was previously held by one of the co-founders of Room to Read, how do you balance honoring the legacy of the founders while putting your own imprint on the organization?
Geetha: I’ve been really fortunate to have had very strong relationships with all three of our founders, all of whom are still associated with the organization in different ways. I’ve learned a lot from their own experiences, and they themselves have been very committed to ensuring that Room to Read continues to be a learning organization and evolves.
So, I believe that I am building an organization on very strong foundations with a lot of support from our legacy. Going forward, Room to Read is committed to ensuring that all people around the world who want to contribute to our mission have a way to access the organization, and that’s been my primary focus– ensuring that this mission, that is important to so many people, is one that we continue to address as I move ahead.
…education was power and would ultimately give me the choices I need to do whatever I want in life.
Denver: I know this work is very personal to you as you reflect on your own family history, correct?
Geetha: Absolutely. It’s very important to everything that I do at Room to Read, and it’s something that I keep in mind because my family was one in which child marriage was quite common just a generation ago. And my mother at the age of 13 made the decision not to get married as the oldest of seven and decided instead to pursue an education and train as a nurse in the Indian Army which was quite controversial at that time. With her decision came a number of decisions that followed, including one, to make sure her daughter was educated to the fullest extent possible. So with that, I not only got my high school diploma but my college-university degree, a couple of Masters, a PhD, largely with a sense of an intensity that education was power and would ultimately give me the choices I need to do whatever I want in life.
It is imperative that our best practices in teaching reading, and ensuring gender inequality in education is a thing of the past, becomes a reality for the entire world.
Denver: Let me close with this Geetha. Remarkable progress has been made over the first 18 years of Room to Read. What’s your plan, what’s your vision over the course of the next five years? Where do you hope the organization will be?
Geetha: Room to Read has already reached 12.4 million children. I believe that we have the solutions to reach many more, and with 250 million children not learning the basics around the world, it is imperative that our best practices in teaching reading, and ensuring gender inequality in education is a thing of the past, becomes a reality for the entire world.
So, my sole focus is accelerating our impact to not just a million kids per year, but hopefully many many more.
World change does start with educated children.
Denver: You’re well on your way. Geetha Murali, the Chief Executive Officer of Room to Read, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, the information contained there. Hey, you have a dollar-for-dollar match going on until the end of May, right?
Geetha: We do. We invite all of you to participate. Please do visit us at www.roomtoread.org. World change does start with educated children.
Denver: Thanks Geetha. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Geetha: Thank you so much Denver. Really enjoyed being here.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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