Sunday, August 26, 2007

Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI)

My eldest son, Jimmy, and I were able to attend a portion of the Global Social Benefit Incubator at Santa Clara University last week. We were able to hear the elevator pitches of more than a dozen social entrepreneurs from literally all over the world. Oh, and Jimmy's 21 now so we can drink beer together in a public place!

Jimmy and Jim Fruchterman, holding beers, photo credit Sophie Asmar

Jimmy's quite interested in social entrepreneurship. Long term readers of the Beneblog might remember Jimmy's post from Davos last year, (the most popular Beneblog post I ever or never wrote!) when the Schwab Foundation allowed me to bring him along to their Social Entrepreneur Summit in Switzerland. Jimmy's changed his major to international studies with a focus on social issues: my peer social entrepreneurs got him very excited.

I think the GSBI program tackles the exact issue Jimmy noticed in Davos: all these great people doing great things, and the world hardly knows. The team at SCU's Center for Science, Technology, and Society are dedicated to raising the game of these award-winning social entrepreneurs, so that they are better equipped to make more positive social change (and attract the resources they need to make it happen).

The head of Santa Clara, Fr. Locatelli, gave a great talk to open the program. I was very excited to hear about the Messina Commons, a new project by the global Jesuit universities to share curriculum (similar to MIT's Open Courseware work). And I was able to get a word in on asking Fr. Locatelli to go beyond just curriculum, but to get faculty authors of textbooks to make it part of their book contracts to allow for low or no-cost distribution to the poor and disabled.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Program Related Investments

Social capital formation is a hot topic for me. I want to see us have the same kind of positive environment for social ventures as we have in Silicon Valley for high tech ventures (but they have to make a lot of money), where great social ventures are rewarded with better and lower cost capital.

An under-used tool for foundations is the program-related investment (PRI). PRIs are supposed to be for mission (program) reasons first and financial return second (although you can make a return). One concern about PRIs that I've seen is the high cost of doing them: you have to spend a lot of time and legal fees structuring the transaction.

That's why I was glad to see MicroCredit Enterprises and Silk Adler & Colvin release the Program Related Investment (PRI) Primer and Toolkit. It explains a complicated topic well. Plus, they are encouraging other people to use their materials:
In the spirit of partnership, MicroCredit Enterprises offers this Primer and Toolkit into the public domain for informational purposes. No copyright claim to this booklet or its contents is made, provided acknowledgement is given to MicroCredit Enterprises and/or the authors and provided that this material is not reproduced for sale.

So, I hope this will become a trend, to give program investors more tools to do PRIs and lower their transaction costs. And, hopefully, that will lead to more capital for great social ventures!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Darfur: An Atrocity That Needs No Exaggeration

The Benetech team read with great interest the recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, entitled An Atrocity That Needs No Exaggeration. The Op-Ed notes the recent ruling in Britain against the Save Darfur Coalition for overstating the number of dead in Darfur. Britain's Advertising Standards Authority found that Save Darfur's estimate of 400,000 killed in the conflict is based on flawed research.

We know well the difficulties of estimating the numbers of people killed in large-scale human rights crimes. Our Human Rights Data Analysis Group is one of the leading teams that helps countries around the world answer the question "Who Did What to Whom?" Our job is to use science to arrive at the best possible answers to this question and generate facts that will withstand attack from those who seek to downplay the scale of real atrocities or defend human rights abusers in courts and tribunals.

We need to recognize the principled nature of some of these arguments. If you are the defense attorney for someone being tried for war crimes, your job is to poke holes in the prosecution's case. In other cases, however, these attacks come from apologists and defenders of individuals who are indeed guilty of humanity's most heinous crimes. This recent setback underscores the pressing need for the human rights movement not overstate the scale of atrocities. Whether the number killed in Darfur is 400,000, or 200,000 or 100,000, these are crimes that must be stopped and perpetrators held accountable. Exaggeration of the death toll plays into the hands of the bad guys. It's our collective job to get as close to the truth as possible and use that process of data analysis to advocate for international human rights standards and end impunity.

The International Criminal Court will probably succeed in bringing some of those currently indicted for crimes in Darfur into the courtroom. We want to see the guilty convicted of their crimes. To increase the chances that justice will prevail, our Human Rights team is exploring how to help Sudanese human rights groups improve their ability to collect evidence of atrocities in Darfur. We recently received funding from Humanity United for this work, and we hope to make a contribution to this crucially important effort for justice.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cassettes linger long after expected demise

One of my big themes is how social applications of technology lag behind business applications by years (if not decades!). One recent example was the article in USA Today, Cassettes linger long after expected demise. One of the main remaining uses of cassettes is: accessible books for the blind. It's hard to switch technologies once you have invested in them, especially in a field where the payback times are long or potentially forever.

We're hoping to help make digital content the standard for people with disabilities, so that they can get their accessible books over the network for PCs, cell phones, MP3 players and the like. It will lower costs and improve access. We need to kill off the cassette player!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Visit to University of Washington

I just got back from a short jaunt to the University of Washington in Seattle. Not only is it the school my son Andy attends (beam, beam), but it is also a hotbed of activity around advancing people with disabilities. My long-time friend Professor Mari Ostendorf (who was a grad student with me at Stanford) was running a summer research program for engineering students with disabilities.

My talk there was on "raising the floor," my new theme around delivering access to everyone on the planet with a disability (and everybody else, too). It was well received, and I had lunch with the students and talked about disability rights and technology.

Jim Fruchterman and five students in a lab setting with computers

I also got to visit with different grad students and professors doing assistive technology research, and was quite impressed. There were several projects that I saw immediate applications to practice, and a couple that could directly help users.

These kinds of visits are really energizing. It's a reminder that we're not alone in this work: that many brilliant minds are highly engaged in these challenges. And together, we can accomplish a lot more than any one person or group!