Sunday, January 27, 2008 excitement

I just got back from the ATIA conference, which included meetings of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) committees. ATIA is one of the biggest assistive technology conferences of the year and we had many exciting conversations about for Education (B4E, our $32 million five year project to deliver accessible books to every student with a print disability in the U.S.). Betsy Burgess, Susie McKinnon and I spent lots of time talking to state agencies, universities and teachers about B4E. It was a blast, given that we've more than quadrupled the number of students we're serving in less than four months! Plus, just past 36,000 books on-line, and 37,000 will likely happen within a month.

Right after the award for B4E, I gave a keynote at the NCTI conference in DC that went over well. The full talk should be available soon, but eSchoolNews has a short version up on their website. I'm looking forward to making more video of my talks available for folks who are interested.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

For-profit or nonprofit: what's the issue?

I frequently get asked by folks I know in the for-profit tech sector (where I come from), why we don't focus on making money. The team at Benetech seems very strong, and it seems clear we could go off and find a way to make big money. I agree.

But, that's not Benetech. We chose a nonprofit form to do those things we were sure the for-profit world wouldn't do. Or, if they did, they would keep focusing on those "applications with commercial potential." We pretty much exist to adapt technology developed for those "applications with commercial potential" to applications with great social impact and limited commercial potential.

When you have two bottom lines, one of them is the deciding factor. When your organization faces a critical choice (and most organizations seem to need to make these choices), it will pick the bottom line that reflects its organizational charter. If serving shareholders is that bottom line, because you're a for-profit, I respect that. If you're a nonprofit, you'll choose to focus on social good. I like that better, because I once had to make the choice to jettison a social project when I was a founder of a venture backed for-profit company. It was the right decision for the company, but the wrong decision for society.

A wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of a nonprofit will follow the directives of its parent. We have such an entity, and the Mozilla Foundation/Corporation is a great example. But, those for-profits are exceptions, organized as a tool for nonprofits to protect their charitable status. When most people say they want to take the for-profit form, it's around raising capital and making money. Once you have shareholders, you have a pretty strong bias to pursue their interests. The folks I know who have tried to get investors to accept sub-market returns haven't raised much capital, although I continue to have hopes that they will. So, if you're a for-profit promising market investment returns, you're back in the situation of having to choose between serving society or delivering market returns.

We have a vibrant for-profit sector that works pretty well. We have a large non-profit sector that has many zones where it does not work well (measured by long-term addressing the social mission). Our work is bringing more businesslike approaches to the non-profit sector, rather than fixing the for-profit sector with more socially oriented approaches. To my mind, that's where the low-hanging fruit are in the technology fields. And, as a nonprofit, I can pursue society's interests with a clear conscience.