Jennie Orchard may be half a world away, but she’s intent on ensuring
millions of children have the chance to change their lives through the joy of
Not-for-profit organisation Room to Read changes lives. Since the year 2000,
it has helped more than 5.1 million children in nine developing countries in
Asia and Africa learn to read and write.
Each day, Room to Read distributes books – around three books every minute –
and builds schools in developing nations, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India,
Laos and Zambia. Classrooms with well-stocked bookshelves, posters, exercise
books and pencils provide a precious opportunity for eager local children, many
from impoverished backgrounds, to improve their future prospects through
It may be geographically distant, but Australia plays an important role in
Room to Read’s global efforts. Jennie Orchard, the determined Development
Director Australasia, organises events, raises awareness and identifies funding
sources for the charity and leads a network of mainly volunteers.
Orchard, who has a background in publishing, discovered Room to Read in early
2006 while living in Hong Kong where her husband worked as a resources
specialist. Coincidentally, Orchard was working as a volunteer when she read
about Room to Read in a local newspaper. Founder John Wood’s story is
compelling. He swapped a high-flying executive role with Microsoft to establish
the charity. Fortuitously, he was visiting Hong Kong and Orchard lined up a
meeting. She discovered that she shared a lot of connections with the
“I liked the focus on girls’ education and literacy having been involved with
publishing for most of my life, plus Room to Read had a program in Laos. My
husband lived in Laos in the early 1980s and we had our wedding ceremony there
When she returned to Sydney in early 2008, Wood asked Orchard to establish
Room to Read in Australia. Since then she’s leveraged personal connections and
put in countless volunteer hours establishing chapters in Sydney, Melbourne,
Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra.
The organisation’s mission – promoting education and literacy for children in
developing countries – is straightforward enough, although in the set-up phase
it proved controversial for Orchard. People asked why her efforts weren’t
focussed on Indigenous communities and told her she would not receive
philanthropic support, but she’s proved them wrong. “As an organisation we can
only do so much,” she emphasises.
Her job is to identify new sources of funding in Australia via corporations
and foundations. Law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques and accounting and
consultancy group KPMG have provided pro bono legal and financial support.
Significant cash donations have come from software business Atlassian, and the
Planet Wheeler Foundation.
Investors are impressed that 83 cents of every dollar goes to Room to Read’s
programs. More than AUD$4 million has been raised since the organisation
launched in Australia in 2009 and Orchard has won ambassadorial support from
authors such as Bryce Courtenay.
“People respond well to our model’s low overheads and the fact that we employ
local people in our projects,” says Orchard. “Our first decade was about
infrastructure, building schools, establishing libraries and donating books.
We’ve also developed a local language publishing program involving local
writers, illustrators and printers in producing children’s story books. These
are then distributed to our libraries and to schools and orphanages.”
As communities and governments increasingly request Room to Read’s help,
Orchard is busy ensuring the organisation’s Australian presence grows. At the
outset, Wood’s huge ambition was to reach 10 million children by 2020. “We are
going to achieve that by 2015,” Orchard notes with satisfaction.
Goals for the organisation’s future involve
literacy and gender equality through education. “There are still millions of
children in need of support. It’s a challenge – but it’s immensely rewarding,”
she says. Visit www.roomtoread.org/australia or