Monday, January 05, 2015

Donor Spotlight: Lavelle Fund for the Blind

What is it like for a nonprofit to have a successful, lasting partnership with a private philanthropic foundation? And what are some of the social benefits and impact that may result from such a relationship?

At Benetech, we’re fortunate to have had long-time support from funders who have been willing to bet on us. One foundation that has been a committed supporter of our work is the Lavelle Fund for the Blind. I’d like to share our experience with Lavelle, where they took a series of calculated risks in grantmaking.

Logo of the Lavelle Fund for the Blind.
The Lavelle Fund exemplifies the tremendous social return that bold philanthropy can create. Embracing measured risk, The Fund has been willing to make early bets on Benetech, and has repeatedly chosen to invest in our prototype projects. These projects ended up becoming successful and found sustainable funding streams, allowing the innovation to go to scale without needing continued funding from Lavelle. That’s what a lot of foundations would love to see happen: in this case, it’s happened multiple times!

The mission of the Lavelle Fund is to support programs that help people with visual impairments, including blindness, lead independent, productive lives. It funds primarily organizations that serve the New York City metropolitan area or New York State. Twelve years ago, the Fund made its first grant to Benetech, in support of the then newly launched Bookshare, our accessible online library for people with disabilities that get in the way of reading print, including visual impairments and dyslexia. This first grant allowed us to pilot a Bookshare outreach project in the New York metro area, with a de facto focus on senior citizens with vision loss. Frankly, it didn’t go as well as we had hoped, and Lavelle worked with us to retarget the grant to focus on students with visual impairments. This revised project included the conversion of books into accessible formats and working with multiple schools.

This pilot paved the way for our work in the education field. It gave us the opportunity to conduct for the first time a sizeable outreach campaign in education, provided us with informative user feedback and case studies, and supported the development of Bookshare’s initial K-12 collection. This experience helped us prove the potential of Bookshare to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Soon afterwards in 2007, we won our first major award from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which, in turn, allowed us to build Bookshare into a national asset. Today, Bookshare serves over 330,000 American students with a rapidly growing collection of hundreds of thousands of accessible ebooks. It is Benetech’s largest social enterprise and is making excellent strides towards solving the “accessible book famine” in the United States. Moreover, Bookshare basically breaks even in the United States thanks to contracts to provide the services, from the U.S. government and states like Texas.

The Lavelle Fund also supports programs benefiting the developing world. In this grantmaking area, too, The Fund was key to Bookshare’s global expansion and to our ability to better serve low-income users, in developing and developed countries alike.

We first extended Bookshare services internationally in 2008 with the launch of Bookshare in India. Worth Trust, an Indian social enterprise providing employment to people with disabilities, partnered with Bookshare to provide book-processing services and expand the library. This effort has now resulted in the addition of over 11,000 books to the Bookshare collection and was made possible through the initial support of the Lavelle Fund.

When Bookshare really began to take off, we realized that we weren’t serving many low-income Bookshare members who lacked access to a personal computer or a smartphone. Even in the United States, this was true of probably a quarter of our student users. Of course, in India and other developing countries, the gap is even larger. It was again a grant from the Lavelle Fund (our third) that allowed us to develop the ability to provide accessible MP3 audio versions of our materials and realize the enormous potential impact of mobile reading options for individuals with print disabilities.

A Bookshare member reading a Bookshare book in audio format on an assistive technology device.
DAISY Audio and MP3 formats offer Bookshare members
more choices to read on the go
In this case, we upgraded the Bookshare website to allow direct downloads of accessible MP3 files for a small number of Bookshare ebooks. The idea is that a member could go to a school, library, or other nonprofit agency with an internet connection, and walk out with the books they wanted to read on any MP3 player or MP3-enabled mobile phone (this is true of most of the inexpensive phones being sold). Since we first began offering this option three years ago, Bookshare members have downloaded over 150,000 MP3 files from the collection. This pilot created strong interest in mobile Bookshare among educators and students, and laid the groundwork for eventual integration of audio download capability via Bookshare at large, when we convinced the Department of Education to scale the pilot up to cover all of our books in English and in Spanish.

With this new capability for making audio files available, we have returned to the international field with many more books available to many more people on the device they actually have in their pocket or in their bag. In 2013, with the most recent (and fourth!) grant by the Lavelle Fund and with welcome changes to Indian copyright law in effect, we embarked on a new project to increase service and expand the number of accessible books for people who are blind in India. As part of this project, we are working with our lead Indian partner, the DAISY Forum of India, as well as other Indian disability organizations. We are committed to increasing our impact in India by an order of magnitude. Benetech announced this commitment at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. We’re very excited about this project: it allows us to pilot Bookshare at scale in India and show its potential to address the needs of people with disabilities globally.

The Lavelle Fund for the Blind has been a wonderful partner to Benetech. Over and over again, it has allowed us to pilot and eventually scale technology solutions that empower disadvantaged communities. The Fund demonstrates the incredible social impact that private philanthropy can create through smart investing strategies and risk tolerance. We are deeply grateful to the Fund for its continued support and commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities.

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