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06 May 2011
Position: Development Director Australasia, Room to Read.
It’s an invaluable lesson. Combine it with a powerful story and you can really get things done.
Take the tale of John Wood, founder of the global non-profit Room to Read. At 35 Wood was Microsoft’s Director of Business Development for the Greater China Region and had worked with the company from 1991 to 1999. On a holiday in 1998 trekking through the Himalayas Wood became inspired to increase literacy rates in the developing world through supplying children with books, libraries, schools, and educational opportunities – especially for girls. Here was a guy at the top of his game in the corporate world and he left to start a non-profit. According to Jennie Orchard, Room to Read’s Development Director Australasia, more than 10 years later Wood “still vibrates with passion and enthusiasm ”.
Something Jennie herself understands and gravitates toward. In the past few years in a volunteer capacity, she has worked for anywhere between 40 and 70 pro bono hours a week setting up a fund and awareness raising presence for the organisation in Australia.
In 2002, having had a career in publishing and then running her own business in Sydney organizing educational speaking engagements and programs for writers, Jennie and her family went off to Asia. Not the first time she’d moved countries for her husband’s job but it had always brought her and her family great rewards. They lived in Tokyo, which Jennie loved to the point where she now classifies herself a Japanophile. (She was unable to work, however, and became involved with a non-profit organization raising money to fund tertiary scholarships for women.)
From Tokyo the family then moved to Hong Kong where Jennie first came across Room to Read and met John Wood.
“John said to me when you go back to Australia you should set up Room to Read. Setting up a new non-profit, particularly when you are sending funds off shore is a long and complex business and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Jennie confesses she is a words person and not a numbers person and that aside from the difficulty of managing a large group of volunteers, understanding the financial and legal issues have been major learning curves.
“People hear about us and they want to help but to be able to give them a job to do, well it’s not always there. We don’t run the programs. In fact we don’t deliver programs in Australia. Room to Read’s mandate is to work in developing countries, so Australia is purely about fund and awareness raising. We need our volunteers to be fundraisers. We need them to help us run events and with building awareness.”
Tasks that are not easily broken down into immediately do-able bits, and it is where Jennie sees the next big part of the Room to Read set up to be, putting in the structures and processes that will support Room to Read in its journey to become a sustainable organization in Australia.
Asked about indigenous literacy in Australia, Jennie says it is one of the questions (along with why doesn’t the organisation provide e-readers) she gets asked the most.
“We think indigenous literacy concerns are incredibly important but it is not what we do in Australia. However, we work with networks all over the world and I know the guys here working in the literacy space and we are happy to share our knowledge with them, have them see and use or copy, our models, if they wish.”
When Jennie returned to Sydney and began setting up the organization, she was told in no uncertain terms that if it wasn’t indigenous literacy it wouldn’t fly with the philanthropic community. And she agrees that there is an amazingly strong focus in Australia for raising money for Australian projects, which she believes is a good thing.
“But I can tell you, once Australians hear a good story like this one they are very interested. It’s all about making connections with people and for people.”
The biggest break for Room to Read in Australia came through connections. In 2008 just as she was starting the set-up process, Frank Zipfinger, an old friend, who was chair of Mallesons at the time and heavily involved in the Mallesons community program, introduced Jennie to its administrator, Jane Farnsworth. Through that connection Jennie secured generous pro bono assistance investigating and working through all the set-up issues: deciding which structure, getting incorporated, appointing a board, opening a bank account, finally launching Room to Read Australia Foundation in February 2009.
“I had got to a certain stage in my life where I had the connections and networks and I was able to see how they could work to Room to Read’s benefit. The Sydney chapter is one of 53 chapters in the organization world-wide, including six in Australia. We have raised over $4 million in Australia in just over 2 years and we’re considered a resounding success.
Backed by inspiration and passion the organization has always had an entrepreneurial focus on the numbers,” explains Jennie.
The organisation opens a library every four hours, builds a school every twenty-six, its overheads are under 18 per cent. The numbers are very important in the equation.
“People like to know that their money is being spent on programs and not on administration. We create connections between donors, investors, the people and the projects. People respond to that reality and they can go and visit the projects they sponsor at the end of the process,” Says Jennie.
It was personal connections that inspired Jennie’s involvement. Firstly the organization is all about books and literacy. Secondly it was doing work in Laos, where Jennie had a wedding ceremony. Thirdly it had a strong focus on education programs for girls which particularly interest her. Girls’ education is the most effective way to spend developmental dollars: “There’s lots of data around educating girls and the benefits that has for communities. We have 10,000 girls on long-term scholarships now.”
Jennie Orchard grew up in London. She studied languages and says with the air of someone who likes to break moulds, that you are not meant to go into book publishing unless you have an English degree from Oxbridge but she did with a French and German degree from Bristol.
One of the first successes in her publishing career in London was winning the Tony Godwin Award, which certainly augured well for the future. Children and her husband’s work meant making decisions that changed the course of that career. Eventually, the family moved to Australia where Jennie worked in publishing and then set up her own business helping authors and illustrators to develop their careers, working with publishers to get creatives public exposure.
She remembers as a child not being good at games but that she did play a game called Racing Demon, competitive patience: “Every person in the family has a pack of cards and you play patience against one another, working yourself into a total frenzy. I also love tennis.”
She agrees this precision says much about her ability to be focused and fiercely competitive when it counts. Asked if she has had a successful life, she immediately refers to a definition of happiness that resonates for her: having meaningful work, something to look forward to and someone to love. In the past couple of years, her involvement with Room to Read has thrown her work life balance ‘off to one side’, but her husband’s support has meant she has been able to do something she loves and is passionate about, developing readers and educating young people for life all across the world.
She has also, through the work of establishing Room to Read, been challenged and learned new skills: “I’ve had to get up to speed with aid issues, finance, the philanthropy world. These were not areas with which I was familiar. To get this Foundation off the ground and to get traction has taken a lot of time but the hours invested have produced a lot of satisfaction both in terms of the financial results and the strength of the team built initially in Sydney, then around Australia. It’s been an amazing and unexpected journey.”
Music, I’m a choral singer
Food and wine.
The unfriendly nature of the workplace for women with children.
Providing e-readers instead of books: besides the very basic practical problem of connectivity and the remoteness of the places Room to Read goes to, books are about bringing a whole community together, believes Jennie.
If things are to change for women in the workplace, men have to come to the party when it comes to childcare and providing support.
Best financial decision? “All our financial decisions we have made together,” says Jennie, indicating her husband’s part in the process. “Our best decision was to live overseas, to take risks, because with risks come rewards and sometimes, great rewards. Of course, risk can have negative outcomes. It’s not all perfect, but that wouldn’t be a fully lived life.”