Mr. Jim Goes to Washington (and New York, and Nairobi, and Seoul, and Kampala, and Boston…)
Like many other leaders of nonprofit organizations, I travel an unreasonable fraction of the time. I recently hit three million lifetime miles on American Airlines. Not sure whether to celebrate or mourn this milestone.
Why do I do it? Why do my peers do it? We know that the carbon impact of all that travel is bad for the planet, and the personal impact of all that travel is bad on our bodies.
We travel because we think it’s the most effective way to spread social change. We travel because there is no substitute for human interaction. We travel because we need to raise money, and we won’t get it unless we get in front of the donors.
For the more senior social entrepreneurs, we can travel because we have leaders and teams that are usually better than we are at running the organizations we head and/or have founded. We travel because it‘s the best use of our time in finding the partnerships, insights, and the money our teams need to create more social change. Lastly, we travel to advocate for the world to change, from a position of authority based on the change our organizations are already delivering.
That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. However, I thought I’d back up the theory with a brief picture of what this kind of travel looks like in practice. When I travel, I write up detailed notes on who I meet with and what we discussed. After all, if we’re going to invest all of that time and money sending me places, Benetech better get its social good bang for the buck. So, let me tell you about a seven week travel jag I recently completed, where I spent almost 70% of the nights not at home (including weekends). Hopefully, it will give you a flavor of why this travel is worth it to me and Benetech!
New YorkEvery year, social entrepreneurs and donors (along with a whole lot of other folks) converge on New York City. It’s the week of the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative. Even if all you do is spent two minutes in the lobby of the hotel where CGI is held, you have plenty of meetings and events to attend. My trip report mentions 19 different events or meetings, where I talked to at least 40 named individuals, in five days in New York City, and here are some of the highlights:
|Empire State Building and Moon in Eclipse|
- Attended events thrown by current funders (Skoll Foundation, the Internet Freedom Program at the State Department), past funders (Omidyar Network), and other funders who I hope will fund us someday (who shall remain nameless for now).
- Took pictures of the lunar eclipse next to the Empire State Building(!)
- Attended a networking events for social entrepreneurs, such as the one organized by the Schwab Foundation (the organizers of the World Economic Forum in Davos), where we brainstormed about different issues. I led a conversation on what big data is going to mean for social entrepreneurs.
- Met with current and prospective individual donors as part of my donor cultivation and stewardship efforts, by thanking current donors and explaining what we’ve accomplished with their support, and sharing our activities with prospective donors in the hopes of getting them to support Benetech.
- Consulted with some peer social entrepreneurs about whether we could help them with specific technology for their nonprofits.
- Met with a big NYC disability services provider about a possible Bookshare partnership.
- Met with a major international human rights defender group about our Martus technology and digital security more generally.
- Interviewed several candidates for executive positions at Benetech.
- Met with the UN Foundation about a major grant they are giving us to bring Bookshare to India.
- And much more…
Washington, D.C.I then zipped down to DC for three days. I spent one day with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as they hosted an event for the Technology Partner Network (I’m one of a couple of hundred of tech advisors in the network). It was interesting to hear the latest about the Gates Foundation and their tech directions. We’re a former grantee and we hope that our work and Gates funding priorities coincide again in the future. Mainly, it was interesting to hear the perspective of a bunch of fellow tech advisors and be part of a process of collectively getting smarter.
Next was two days of Capitol Hill lobbying. I spend between four and ten days a year talking to Congressional staff (this year will be at the lower end of the range). I started doing this back in 2007, when we won our first big federal contract for Bookshare, to take it from 3,000 students back then to more than 350,000 students now. This time I had three agenda items for my conversations with congressional staff:
- Advocating for funding for special education. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years advocating against cuts to the funding that supports our work, by pointing out how amazingly effective this funding is. Even in the tough fiscal environment in Washington, we get good hearings from both Republicans and Democrats. Ensuring kids with disabilities get equal opportunity is, fortunately, a bipartisan issue.
- The Marrakesh Treaty. Word is that the Marrakesh Treaty for the Blind has a ratification package completed. That’s all of the legal work-up on a treaty and how U.S. law needs to change to comply with the treaty (the hope is that these changes are minimal). It’s now up to the Obama Administration to decide if and when they ask the Senate to ratify it. This is not as improbable as it might seem: there’s a pretty good chance the Republican-led Senate might approve the Treaty. I had hoped that the package would have already been in the hands of the Senate, but it hasn’t happened yet. I had a joint meeting (both Republicans and Democrats) with the key Senate Judiciary Committee staff who are the copyright experts, and learned a lot about the process.
- Student privacy. We recently wrote a piece in Medium on our concerns about new privacy legislation affecting nonprofits that work in schools. I had a chance to meet with staffers involved in the drafting of two key federal bills that are most likely to be adopted, and shared my issues. This is what my team calls a karma gig. Benetech is going to be able to comply with any reasonable legislation around student privacy, and we’re supportive of improved privacy standards. But, we’re concerned about small nonprofits who are not Google, Facebook, Pearson or Benetech, and they aren’t able to show up in a place like DC. So, we fill in for them.
Nairobi, KenyaNext I headed to Nairobi, Kenya. My main commitment was to attend a conference in Uganda (described below in this blog post), but I figured if I was in east Africa, I should take the opportunity to first visit two key partners in Kenya (after having a coffee on Sunday with my cousin's daughter, an MIT grad working on analyzing traffic safety data gleaned from social media in Kenya).
My first visit was with Carol Wanjiku, the CEO of our outsourcing partner Daproim. Carol’s social enterprise in Nairobi employs over 100 students working to proofread books for our Bookshare digital library. Her story is so compelling, I’ve already written a blog post about this incredible woman, entitled Rockstar Nairobi Social Entrepreneur. Enough said!
|Gender Violence Recover Unit|
The next day I spent with our long-term tech partner, John “Kipp” Kipchumbah of Infonet. Our first in-person meeting was four years ago, but Kipp has been working with Benetech for more than a decade. Kipp has been a leading software developer in the region, creating software around election monitoring and government transparency just to name a few.
We were supposed to start our visit with a very high government official, but instead Kipp took me over to Nairobi Women’s Hospital. This hospital has a specialty unit that focuses on the survivors of sexual violence such as rape, and Kipp introduced me to Alberta Wambua, who runs the Gender Violence Recovery Centre at the hospital. I quickly found myself talking to one of the front-line doctors, Dr. Edwin, who explained the process of completing the standard rape reporting form paperwork while treating a rape victim. In quick succession I met the medical director who oversees the doctors in the hospital, and then the hospital CEO, Dr. Sam Thenya.
Kipp’s idea was that we could take this paper-based rape reporting system and build it on top of our Martus secure human rights software platform. It would have the following benefits:
- Keeping this highly confidential information safe;
- Backing up the information securely into the cloud;
- Tracking all changes to the records from the very first time the data is captured;
- Allowing the medical experts in the Gender Based Violence (GBV) area to have better aggregate data about the prevalence and characteristics of GBV in Kenya.
Kampala, UgandaThe Sixth Africa Forum was the main reason for my Africa trip. The Africa Forum is the premier meeting of blindness groups across sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s held roughly every three years. It was the third Africa Forum I’ve attended: I went to Accra, Ghana, in 2011 and South Africa in 2004. This time, I had the benefit of help. Our new international Bookshare manager, Terry Jenna, arrived several days before I did and I found myself in a whirl of meetings with international groups, funders, the key disability minister in the Ugandan government, and many others.
|Visiting the Hon. Sulaiman Madada, Uganda's Minister of State for Gender, Labour and Social Development|
One moment made a big impression on me. We were demonstrating Bookshare to a person at one of Uganda’s top universities. They have over 100 visually impaired students enrolled, and want to do more for these students. We were sitting in the shade outside the conference facility, but there was good wifi. I brought up our Read Now capability in Google’s Chrome browser and started reading a textbook aloud directly from the browser. The light bulb went off and our guest exclaimed, “That’s exactly what our students need!” A nice reminder of why we do this work!
Half Moon Bay, CaliforniaAfter 2.5 weeks on the road, I got back and slept in my bed for a couple of nights. Then, it was off to Miramar Farms in Half Moon Bay, a community on the Pacific Ocean less than an hour from our offices in Silicon Valley. Benetech has held its annual management team offsite at Miramar Farms several times. We find their restored barn to be a terrific place to step away and brainstorm about Benetech’s plans for the coming years.
The offsite went really well, best we have had. I had a particular brainstorm as a result of some ideas presented by the team, because on the flight back from Africa I had just read Sally Osberg’s new book on social entrepreneurship (coauthored with Prof. Roger Martin). It made a big impression on me, and I am also working on a blog post inspired by her book, Getting Beyond Better.
Seoul, South KoreaAfter an almost restful whirlwind of meetings in California, it was off to Seoul for the Eighth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy. This is my first time at this conference, which had been strongly recommended to me by Stanford Professor Larry Diamond and the head of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman.
What attracted me to the meeting was Benetech’s expanded focus on social justice and the humanitarian fields in our human rights work. It was a chance to get exposed to a new set of people. It was also important to finally meet some leaders in the field who I had never met in person. For example, Professor Ron Deibert from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School. The Citizen Lab is probably the world’s foremost group analyzing the attacks on human rights groups by repressive governments. Although Benetech has cooperated with the Citizen Lab for years, I know that meeting Ron in person will take that relationship up a notch.
At the meeting I met with groups from all over the world, including people who have visited Benetech’s offices but who hadn’t met me (probably because I was traveling). One of the most exciting meetings was with Scott Carpenter of Google Ideas, where I got the inside scoop on their ambitious plans to end online repressive censorship. Google Ideas was there in force, and even as a longtime security geek I learned some things by attending one of their training sessions.
Of course, being in proximity to North Korea, one of the most dire countries in terms of respect for human rights, meant that this topic came up frequently. I had a couple of meetings on the topic, including an illuminating discussion with the Transitional Justice Working Group.