The Worldreader approach to promoting literacy

By Catherine Cheney 17 August 2015

David Risher, president and co-founder of Worldreader, reads a story on a Kindle with a student in Ghana. Worldreader is a global nonprofit organization on a mission to bring digital books to low-income countries. Photo by: Worldreader / CC BY-SA

As CEO of Worldreader, a nonprofit organization that brings digital books to low-income countries, David Risher pursues his passions for both reading and technology.

Risher grew up loving books so much that his dad would reference the lyrics from “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” calling his son not king of the wild frontier, but king of the library. Now Risher, who reads to two daughters of his own, feels he was put on this planet to help every child have access to the books they need to improve their lives and realize their dreams.

From his office in San Francisco, California, he talked with Devex about his path from studying comparative literature at Princeton University, to spending over a decade at Microsoft and Amazon, to launching an organization taking a unique approach to improving literacy.

Not surprisingly, his years in the private sector have influenced the way he runs Worldreader. Based on Risher’s experience at Microsoft and Amazon, here are four ways to run a nonprofit organization like a startup company.

1. Be strategic with timing.

Founders are quick to admit the role that timing plays in their success, just as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom has admitted that the release of the iPhone 4 helped the photo app rise above the rest. Looking back on his time at Amazon, where he grew the company revenue from $16 million to $4 billion, Risher recalled conversations with founder Jeff Bezos about how the success of the company was due in large part to the explosion of Internet use.

“There will be things you have to do that make you feel like you are swimming upstream, but you also have to have some things that favor the future you envision,” Risher said.

Take the cost of Kindles, for example. When Risher saw a padlocked library while visiting an orphanage in Ecuador, a moment that motivated the eventual launch of Worldreader, a Kindle cost $399. Fast forward to when he and co-founder Colin McElwee set up the nonprofit in 2010, and the price had dropped to $259. Now, Risher said Kindles go for as little as $50 each.

As the Worldreader team looks toward the future, they benefit from the rise in cellphone usage, the decline in technology prices and the growing power of digital tools. They have the wind at their backs.

2. Prioritize smart partnerships.

Worldreader has a $7 million budget, having reached 5.6 million readers over the past five years — the goal is to amass 15 million readers by 2018.

Risher explained that his organization has only reached that scale and can only continue on that path of growth by partnering with much larger organizations. Amazon, for example, offers Worldreader Kindles at a discounted price, while DHL offers shipping at a reduced rate. And in addition to its partnerships with 180 small publishers, Worldreader works with powerhouses like Penguin Random House and Pearson, which offer access to books at a reduced or no cost at all.

“What we do helps them in a certain way, and what they do helps us enormously,” Risher said. “That feeling of true partnership is somewhat rare in the nonprofit world. But in order to get to the size we hope to get and the impact we hope to achieve, we have to partner in that way.”

Worldreader has set itself apart by leveraging the experience of partners on the ground, for example in its collaboration with Camfed, a nonprofit that invests in the education of girls and women in Africa. The organization has also found ways to blend revenue and fundraising, with Risher noting that 30 percent of its revenue comes from people paying for their services.

Risher’s face lights up when he shares stories of children in Ghana or Kenya who finish a Curious George story or a book from “The Magic Treehouse” series on their Kindles and ask for another. But he is the first to admit that he could not do this work without the support of Worldreader staff members on the ground who better understand the needs of the end user.

3. Consider supply and demand.

“When you’re running a nonprofit, just like any business, you have to think pragmatically,” Risher said, expanding on his decision to launch on the continent with the highest percentage of illiteracy. “Where can your donors’ money go the farthest? Where is the problem the biggest? And therefore where can your impact be the greatest?”

While the aha moment that led to the founding of Worldreader happened in Ecuador, Risher said the organization decided to launch in sub-Saharan Africa partly because starting in a place that poses real challenges means there can only be “blue skies ahead.”

“The hardest part about any business is making sure that what you do solve a real problem and that there is real demand out there,” Risher explained. “The world is littered with all kinds of companies that come up with things that they think are just so cool, and they build and build and build, and then the phone doesn’t ring.”

Consider the Sockett, the soccer ball with a mini generator, and PlayPumps, merry-go-rounds that pump water out of the ground, which are widely considered good intentions resulting in failed aid interventions.

“We don’t have that problem,” he said. “We have the opposite problem. We have almost infinite demand for our services and so I don’t see any natural limits to the impact we can have as long as we’re willing to continue to experiment and find out what works and see what people are responding to.”

4. Adopt a growth mindset.

Risher said part of the success of Worldreader has to do with a private sector approach of being clear on where you want to end up but flexible on how you get there. He mentioned the growth mindset term, which was coined by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, who contrasts this tendency to use a range of resources to solve a problem with a “fixed mindset.”

Risher initially joined Amazon because, well, “it was a bookstore.” But Bezos tasked him with growing the company beyond books.

“The catchphrase around the company was get big fast,” he said about the push to diversify at Amazon, and eventually at Worldreader, which has broadened its approach beyond the Kindle. “We realized that brands are like quick drying cement.”

“You don’t just say, ‘I’m going to be the search engine for computers,’” Risher said, referencing the Google mission to organize information and make it accessible and useful for all, and the many paths the company has taken to own that market. “And then of course a computer is going to be helpful, cellphones are going to be helpful, tablets are going to be helpful, and then oh by the way we’re going to figure out other ways to help people organize their information.”

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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