A time for every purpose


Pics: Room to Read

Room To Read founder John Wood’s new book promotes a socially correct way to do business

There was always a danger that phrases like ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ would be hijacked by the corporate world,  and become meaningless clichés. That is exactly what happened: CSR has become PR. Token donations under large banners in the media spotlight to extol the vast generosity of CEOs.

However, in the last decade businesses have found that they can do better by doing good. Social entrepreneurship has been shown to be an end in itself. There is now a critical mass of companies around the world that go beyond token gestures to frame the whole purpose of their businesses in a new value system. The public good (fair trade, environmental protection or social justice) precedes turning a profit as the main corporate goal.

John Wood is the founder of the library and literacy advocacy  group, Room to Read. He worked for Microsoft and was in charge of its operations in China when in 1998 he came to Nepal on a trek. On the first day of the Annapurna Circuit he saw at a school in Bahundanda of Lamjung district how deprived Nepali children were of reading material. He vowed to return, and did come back a year later – with 3,000 books for Bahundanda and surrounding schools.

Wood soon quit Microsoft at age 35 to devote his life to literacy and reading, and colleagues thought he had lost it. But such was the power of his conviction that today, nearly 20 years after he set up Room To Read in Nepal, the group reaches 12.5 million children in 15 countries. Most of that transition from corporate to cooperate is chronicled in his 2007 book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, translated into Nepali as Microsoft Dekhi Bahundanda Samma by FinePrint.)

His latest book, Purpose, Incorporated, goes deeper into how small and large companies across the world are shedding free market capitalism to literally incorporate new values. Wood co-authored the book with Amalia McGibbon who works at Facebook, and that may carry some symbolism at a time when the social networking giant has been accused of commodifying private data.

There is a danger, of course, that the word ‘Purpose’ will also become threadbare with misuse. But Wood and McGibbon argue that companies are changing their mission and values to accommodate something larger than themselves. This new corporate idealism comes out of a sense of urgency because the world faces crises on a global scale: accelerated climate change, intolerance and xenophobia, new fears of nuclear conflict, deepening inequality and poverty.

The book tells us that for a long time there were only two types of companies: for-profit and non-profit. Wood argues that the time has come to have companies that are driven by the goal of doing well by doing good.

He calls Purpose the fifth ‘P’ in the 4P’s taught to MBA students: Product, Price, Promotion and Placement. He says the 4P’s no longer define what sets a company apart.

“Purpose can show a company is unique by helping attract more motivated talent, and by actually boosting business by bonding with customers,” Wood says.

The idea for Purpose, Incorporated came to Wood while fundraising for Room To Read. Business leaders who had donated to the program wanted him to speak to staff to motivate them about doing greater good to the world. He told them that purpose should no longer be an afterthought, but be “embedded in the DNA” of a company.

Soon, many companies around the world started to expand their small Corporate Social Responsibility departments to ensure that good work went hand-in-hand with profits by building bonds with customers, hiring motivated millennials and injecting a sense of purpose to their jobs.

Wood and McGibbon hasten to add that they are not trying to be only goody-goody. They interviewed hundreds of CEOs who have discovered that the higher calling of saving the planet, being less wasteful, treating workers fairly can give them a competitive advantage. Wood says he learnt all this himself while trying to run Room To Read like a business with strategic plans, KPIs, dashboards, hiring committed individuals and firing underperformers.

“The change I am most happy about is how what started out as one little library in Bahundanda in 1999 has become such a key part of the education system in Nepal,” Wood told us in an interview (watch video below). “When children learn to read bright colourful books to engage, it changes their mindset and allows them to get lost in a world that is different from theirs.”

Purpose, Incorporated

Turning Cause Into Your Competitive Advantage

By John Wood and Amalia McGibbon

Room to Read, 2017

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

  • Most read