Simply Read

11 Nov 2011

Author: Sarah Marinos



Every four hours, Room to Read establishes a much-needed library in Africa and Asia.
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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 reading.

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 education.

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 organisation.

“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 years ago.”

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 or email