Wednesday, November 27, 2013

President’s Update: Fall 2013

You may already know that I plan in earnest to provide my personal President’s Updates as quarterly informal reports, but that all too often I fall behind on this well-intended schedule—as is the case with the update you’re reading now!

Don’t get me wrong: I love writing my updates. However, technology is transforming innovation at its core and our team at Benetech does quite well in leveraging this “innovation at warp speed” for social good. In fact, we’re doing so well in that respect that I get to engage more and more in new opportunities to advance our nonprofit mission—but less in writing my updates.

In all seriousness, 2013 has been an incredibly busy and productive year for us. I’m excited to share highlights from our work and its significance for the multitudes we serve. Highlights of this Update:
Global Literacy

Bookshare celebrated a double milestone this summer, reaching over 200,000 available titles in our collection and serving over 250,000 members with disabilities! While the majority of our members are U.S. students, we also serve adults, seniors, veterans, and international subscribers in over 40 countries.

We know, however, that we’ve only scratched the surface of meeting the global need for access to books and information. The sad truth is that millions of people with print disabilities around the world continue to be left behind.

Photo of Benetech's CEO Jim Fruchterman speaking at the WIPO negotiations on the Marrakesh Treaty.
Delivering Benetech's statement to the
WIPO diplomatic conference
That’s why I’ve been actively advocating for a global copyright exception modeled after the great exception in the United States that made Bookshare possible. In June, with the help of Stevie Wonder, we got a treaty that did just that: the Treaty of Marrakesh. It was exciting to be an active player in global diplomacy: Bookshare was the most-cited model of what other countries hope to have, both in terms of accessing our 200,000+ books and having their own national version of Bookshare. The Treaty was signed on the spot by over 50 countries.

We’re going to demonstrate what this could look like by piloting Bookshare International at scale in India. We just announced a Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative, to increase our impact in India by an order of magnitude. Through this project and the Treaty, we’re looking forward to realizing the potential of Bookshare International to eventually help millions of other people globally live fuller lives.

We’re also expanding our efforts to help more people in the U.S., especially veterans with disabilities. We just dedicated our first crowd-funding campaign, Bookshare for Veterans—part of the Skoll Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurs Challenge on CrowdRise—to this goal and are enhancing our outreach to veterans who need access to books and information. If giving disabled vets the gift of accessible reading resonates with you, I would definitely appreciate anything you can do to support our cause.

Human Rights

Photo of Enrique Piracés, Benetech's VP of Human Rights.
Enrique Piracés
Major milestones are the norm this year for our Human Rights team. Our flagship Martus software project marks its tenth anniversary of bringing strong crypto to human rights activists. On February 1st, two people on the team spun out to become an independent nonprofit—the Human Rights Data Analysis Group—to focus on the statistical and analytical side of our human rights work. We’ve just hired Enrique Piracés, most recently with Human Rights Watch, as the new Vice President of our rapidly growing Human Rights Program. His job is to explore new frontiers of technology for secure fact-finding by human rights groups and journalists.

We also received our largest-ever award for human rights, a two-year, $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). This grant will allow us to deliver a set of major enhancements and new language translations for Martus, as well as expanded development and broad deployment of Mobile Martus, our brand new Android-based mobile documentation app.

Benetech Labs

Photo of Gerardo Capiel, Benetech's VP of Engineering, speaking to participants at a conference and showing them a presentation on a laptop.
Gerardo Capiel, our VP of Engineering,
representing Benetech Labs at a
Fundación Avina conference
One of our biggest milestones this year is the launch of Benetech Labs. Technology for social change is needed more and more. Unfortunately, because many of these solutions won’t make money for the developers, the market will fail to address most of what’s needed. Benetech Labs is a place where we can conduct our brand of rapid and iterative innovation without fear of failure. We’ll embrace failure as part of the learning process and as a metric of a true "labs" atmosphere. You see, we want to be able to fail often and well, so we can ultimately launch successful tools that help millions of people. And, by sharing the process openly, we hope to assist many other social innovators on their paths to set up successful social enterprises.

We’re also pulling our Silicon Valley brain trust into these new Labs projects by creating a new kind of nonprofit advisory board, the Benetech Labs Partners. We believe that there’s no better way to engage brilliant leaders from tech, business, and finance than in a brainstorm about early stage tech venture ideas. Not only does it raise risk capital for Benetech, but we also actually want the advice!

We already have many exciting ideas flow into the Labs. From helping clean water and sanitation groups in Latin America, assisting American farmers reduce greenhouse gases, helping labor rights groups track debt bondage or child labor, or conceiving innovative extensions to Benetech’s existing projects, we’re exploring ways that software can make lasting social impact.

Building a Strong Culture of Communications

This summer, we rolled out the updated Benetech brand identity and a new narrative platform, which are featured on our redesigned website. It’s part of our larger effort to build a strong, organization-wide culture of communications. We recognize that becoming effective communicators and storytellers is necessary in order to maximize our impact in the service of our beneficiaries, and we’re committed to improving in this area. To keep abreast of what’s new at Benetech, please regularly visit Benetech’s Blog that features voices from across our organization or sign up for our monthly updates.


Benetech continues to live up to its founding promise to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit with a pure focus on developing technology for the social good. As a result, my job as an engineer for good is a blast. I get to hang out with terrific people who all dream about technology making a bigger and better impact on the world. I hope you share our goal of seeing that technology actually benefits all of humanity, not just the richest and most able 5%!

Jim Fruchterman
President and CEO, Benetech

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