Benetech: President's Update
I’m pleased to provide you you a detailed update on Benetech for the first time in two years. Last summer I talked about our great summer interns and fellows and early this year, I sent a copy of our 20th Anniversary Report that talked about our entire history. Reviewing where we were at the beginning of 2009, it’s amazing to see the growth in impact that Benetech and our team have had in the world. It’s worth celebrating but even more important, worth recognizing the incredible opportunities that we now have to make a difference on an even broader scale. I’m spending more and more of my time trying to figure out what’s next for Benetech—how we can do much more.
Bookshare Hits 100,000 Members
Since the beginning of 2009, we’ve tripled the number of people with disabilities Bookshare is serving with our accessible library of ebooks. For years, our extraordinary cohort of dedicated volunteer scanners has provided Bookshare with most of its new content. This past year, we’re getting most of our content directly from top publishers: high-quality digital content for free. Our volunteers, together with these socially responsible publishers, are making sure that our members have the content they need. We just added 847 books to the collection in one day—that’s more than we used to add in a month! All of this means that when people living with a disability such as blindness, severe dyslexia, or a significant physical disability (such as our returning veterans who may have polytrauma) come looking for a specific book they need for education, employment or simple enjoyment, we’re much more than likely to have it available for them in an accessible format.
The amazing thing about serving 100,000 students right now is that our commitment to the U.S. Department of Education was to serve 100,000 students by the end of our five-year contract in late 2012. Based on hitting that number two years early, we’re now projecting that we could serve perhaps twice as many students, 200,000, by the 2012 milestone date. And the price to the Dept. of Education won’t change: we’ll do twice as much for the same price. I know that funders aren’t used to hearing that from the social sector!
Now that we believe we’ve really begun to solve the problem of making the text in books accessible for the 1% of the population with a severe print-related disability, we’re busy thinking about the next frontier. We just won a $5 million competition that will fund our DIAGRAM R&D center to tackle the problem of image accessibility for people with print disabilities. And we’re busy discussing with educators and publishers how we can bring Bookshare-style accessible content to the ten times as many students who could benefit from talking books but don’t qualify under the very limited copyright exemption.
Human Rights Program – Changing the Field of Human Rights
Making the truth matter is the core theme of our human rights work. If we’re going to speak truth to power, then we need to make sure that we are speaking truth. Overstated claims hurt the cause of the human rights movement over the long term. The way that we can best honor the victims of past human rights violations is to document and share their stories in support of the campaign to drive change today—by seeking reforms, ending impunity and if at all possible, securing justice.
Our human rights team is active all over the world. The head of our group, Patrick Ball, is spending most of this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, working with the United Nations on a range of human rights issues (of which the DRC has many). One of our team just testified regarding evidence in the disappearance of a prominent human rights activist more than twenty years ago: the trial is one result of our extensive work at the Guatemalan National Police Archive. The human rights team trains groups how to use their number one asset, information about human rights violations, as a strategic tool to advance their social justice mission. Working with groups that range from front-line activists to truth commissions and war crimes tribunals, we’re using databases, data security and statistical analyses to realize positive change. Our team is helping activists and organizations worldwide ensure that the truth matters.
Miradi – Expanding Throughout the World
I’ve been amazed by the growth in adoption of Miradi, our conservation project management software tool. We’re helping the environmental movement become more effective through using Miradi to manage its conservation projects and to better steward environmental assets. In the last couple of years our biggest users—the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Rare and the National Audubon Society—have funded 100% of Miradi’s development costs by tapping core funds and seeking grants for Miradi from foundations, most notably the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It is a great testament to the strength of support for Miradi in the environmental sector.
We now have more than 3,500 users in over 140 countries using Miradi for projects as varied as a coordinated national strategy for the preservation of the chimpanzees in Tanzania, to the development of management plans for two Marine National parks bordering Sweden and Norway.
Benetech’s Powerful Management Team
I’m thrilled to announce a key addition to Benetech’s senior management team. Gerardo Capiel is our new Vice President of Engineering, with a strong background as a successful entrepreneur and Internet developer. Our board and management team are working on a new strategic plan right now: the plan is not a detailed prescription for our future, but a powerful statement of our values and direction, preparing us for what’s next.
Benetech has become an engine of sustainable social change: we’ve figured out how to use our technology social enterprise model repeatedly to scale new ideas that deliver far greater social impact at the same or lower cost than status quo solutions can offer. We believe that the world needs more Benetech-style social enterprises, and we’re dedicated to doing more ourselves and to helping other social entrepreneurs succeed with their new ventures.
To accomplish this goal within Benetech, we need more risk-taking capital. We need innovation money that represents probably less than 5% of our budget, but is essential to our future. If we have ten hot innovative ideas, then we need to invest in figuring out which idea makes the most sense, and then to take that idea to sustainability. Benetech’s board and I are starting a new campaign to invite visionary donors to get behind the next generation of innovative Benetech social ventures.
Literacy, human rights and the environment are critically important to the future of humanity. Every day, we at Benetech see new opportunities to help more people and organizations do more with information. With your help, we will!
President and CEO, The Benetech Initiative