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Aid group taps book clubs to help raise money, awareness

October 29, 2009

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Caroline Preston

The Chronicle of Philanthropy
October, 2009

On the fourth Monday of each month, Rufi Natarajan gathers with friends at a Houston cafe for a book club meeting. The conversations begin at 6:30 and typically last for two hours — but last month’s discussion will continue well beyond that.

Ms. Natarajan’s book group is one of more than 430 that have signed on to a project by Mercy Corps, the international aid charity, centered around a new book by the journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.

The book, Half the Sky, argues that many of society’s problems can be alleviated by improving the status of women. Mercy Corps, which recently started a campaign to advance the idea that investing in women can fight global hunger, is using the book to win support for that effort.

The charity issued a challenge to book clubs around the world: Don’t just read the book, take action. Raise money for Mercy Corp’s campaign, recruit others to read the book, draw attention to global hunger, and push politicians to do more.

The book group that compiles the most impressive “record of activism” by mid-June 2010 will be visited by Mr. Kristof and Ms. Wudunn, who will hold a discussion with the winning book club members.

Participating book clubs also get exclusive discussion questions from the authors, bookmarks from India, and updates on news and events on Half the Sky.

Joy Portella, director of communications with Mercy Corps, says the charity learned about Half the Sky shortly before its publication and realized its message dovetailed perfectly with the group’s new antihunger campaign focused on women, called One Table.

The charity hasn’t done much marketing — mostly relying on social-media and e-mail outreach — but its participating book clubs so far include groups from the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries.

While Mercy Corps hasn’t set a goal for how much it hopes to raise from the book clubs, says Ms. Portella, the overall fund-raising goal for the One Table effort is $3-million.

Like many of those participating in the book-club effort, Ms. Natarajan, who works in real estate in Houston, had never contributed to Mercy Corps before. But she persuaded her book club to get involved after reading an article by Mr. Kristof, a columnist in The New York Times, which eventually led her to sign up for the charity’s e-mails and learn about the book-group effort.

Ms. Natarajan considers herself educated on women’s issues and world affairs. She grew up in Pakistan, holds a master’s degree in South Asian history, and has served on the board of a local Planned Parenthood.

But she says she still found the book, with its discussions of honor killings, forced prostitution, and mass rape, very difficult to read. “There was anger and disbelief that women actually live under these types of conditions,” she says. “Across the board, everyone felt like we had to do something to help.”

Her book-group members plan together to make a donation to Mercy Corps — they have not yet decided how much — and have been recruiting other clubs to sign on to the initiative. Ms. Natarajan has written about the book and the competition for the publication of her local American Association of University Women (her book club is affiliated with the group).

She says she has also been purchasing copies of the book for friends and acquaintances, and has convinced her son, among many others, to read it.