Benetech: the Equilibrium Change Machine

I just read the new book from Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and strategy guru Roger Martin, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works. Even though I’m a Skoll Award winner, it really made me think about my organization, Benetech, and what we are trying to accomplish. The book is an expanded version of their seminal article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2007, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition.” I always refer aspiring social entrepreneurs to the article when they ask me how they can win a Skoll Award. But, it’s always useful to explore the framework of one’s work.  Sally and Roger's book challenged me to do just that.

Framework for Producing Transformative Change

Two key concepts from the book really stuck with me. The first is their core concept of equilibrium change. Did the world move from one stable but unjust equilibrium to a new and better one? Of course, this is a familiar concept to me as someone who started his career building for-profit tech companies in Silicon Valley. The primary goal in the Valley is massive change, because when you’re a for-profit that magnitude usually yields massive profits. Whether it’s Microsoft transforming the PC software industry, or Google or Facebook, it’s clear that the world is different because these companies exist. The difference is that the social entrepreneur pursues change at scale primarily as a tool for social justice, not private enrichment.

That’s the group the Skoll Foundation wants to invest in: social entrepreneurs driving large-scale change.

The second key concept explores what a social entrepreneur is and isn’t. The authors present a two-by-two matrix. One axis represents nature of action: direct or indirect. The other axis represents systems change: does the world work better and differently now as a result of these efforts?
2 by 2 matrix. Y axis is Nature of Action (Direct and Indirect); X axis is Outcome (Extant systems maintened and approved and New equilibrium created and maintained). Direct/Extant System box is "social service provision"; Direct/New Equilibrium box is Social Entrepreneurship. Indirect/Extant System box is empty; Indirect/New Equilibrium box is Social Activism.
Credit: Martin, Roger L. and Osberg, Sally R., Osberg & Martin, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, 2015.

They put Martin Luther King in one box: the world-changing activist who accomplished large-scale change through indirect means. They put most nonprofits in the direct action without systems change box: groups that do a good (or even excellent) job of delivering services under the existing system. They then place social entrepreneurs in the direct action and systems change box. Basically, social entrepreneurs get stuff done at scale and they change the world to boot!

This is not to say that social entrepreneurs don’t work in the policy and advocacy space. But, we generally play in that space based on our credibility as operators of social change at scale first. Rather than just telling people how the world needs to improve, the successful social entrepreneur demonstrates how to do it.

I read the Osberg/Martin book just prior to a major Benetech planning meeting. We were trying to analyze the Benetech secret sauce: how do we go about changing the world for the better as Silicon Valley’s deliberately nonprofit tech company? The team laid out the figure below:
Three boxes in a circle where one box leads to the next. Starts with Thought Leadership; leads next to Incubation & Innovation; leads then to Operation at Scale; and finally returns to Thought Leadership--where it begins anew.
Benetech's Equilibrium Change Model

Looking at this summary of how Benetech operates, it was clear to me that our theory of change matched the framework from Osberg and Martin. We pick projects that have the potential for large-scale change: can we deliver something for a tenth of the cost of the existing solution? If cost benchmarking doesn’t make sense (as in the field of human rights), can we dramatically change the way people operate in a given area?

Equilibrium Change According to Benetech

Benetech is an engine for equilibrium change, and we’ve done it over and over again. Replicating this change at scale in multiple fields is what makes Benetech so unique in the social innovation field. We don’t pick a single area of focus. The common link among our projects is information technology, which can be applied to just about every aspect of the social sector. One of our insights is that so much of social change is about pushing around information. Yet, nonprofits frequently lag behind the for-profit world in applying technology to their work. Benetech has a unique opportunity to repeatedly use technology as a social change agent. Let me share some of the ways we have done it and are working today to do it again.
From Arkenstone to Bookshare
The field of access to books by blind people is where Benetech has twice been the key engine of positive equilibrium change at scale, and we are already working on the third change. Before Benetech was founded, blind people were read to either in person by a family member, volunteer, or paid reader, or via audio cassette tape. Blind people were dependent on sighted people for access to books. And, because of the high cost of human narration, very few books were available this way.

Benetech’s original project was the Arkenstone Reader, the first affordable reading machine for the blind. We provided a tool that blind individuals could use to scan and read their own books independently. The Arkenstone reading tools became a key mode of independent access to books. As long as you were willing to invest the two to four hours to scan that book page by page, you could read just about any book, article, or piece of mail that you wanted to read.

This was the first equilibrium change: before, blind people were read to; after, blind people scanned and read what they wanted independently. This kind of technology is now a standard part of the toolkit of blind people in the wealthier countries of the world.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen set forth the “Innovator’s Dilemma” which states that companies that have accomplished great change are reluctant to adopt the next disruptive innovation because of its impact on the existing successful business. However, as nonprofit social entrepreneurs, we don’t worry about unhappy shareholders. We are more interested in improving the world than maintaining the status quo. We can just blow up the old model while striving for the next phase of equilibrium change.

In our case, we sold the Arkenstone reading machine enterprise to a for-profit and used money from the sale (and funding from the Skoll Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Jenesis Foundation) to create and launch Bookshare. Being based in Silicon Valley, we have the benefit of seeing the future being invented constantly. As the author William Gibson famously noted, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” In the case of the social sector, the odds that the use of technology is ten or twenty years behind Silicon Valley are high. As a result, we have lots of opportunities to borrow technology and business model breakthroughs and apply them to social change. And that’s what we did with Bookshare!

The Bookshare breakthrough depended on three innovations. The first was the ebook. Fundamentally, the Arkenstone Reader allowed blind people to create their own personal ebook as a text file that could be read in something like Microsoft Word. By the time of Bookshare’s creation in 2001, new and better XML digital book formats had been developed. These formats now underpin the ebook industry of today. The second innovation was crowdsourcing. It wasn’t a term in use in 2001, but the Napster peer-to-peer model of information distribution was the inspiration for Bookshare. Instead of providing a scanning tool for independent reading, Bookshare would aggregate the scanning activity of the entire community. Instead of thousands of people each scanning the new Harry Potter title, one person would scan it, one person would proofread it, and tens of thousands of people would get it through an online software service. Third, we pioneered a novel interpretation of the copyright exception for serving people with disabilities that is built into the basic law of the United States. Although it had never been created with crowd sourcing in mind, the Bookshare concept fit the existing exception like a glove.

Fast forward to today. In the United States, if a person who is blind or dyslexic receives a book suggestion from a friend, the odds that the book is available in Bookshare are probably over ninety percent. And, Bookshare’s promise to K-12 students with these kinds of disabilities is that if they need specific titles for school, we’ll get them. Once we do that, those titles will now be instantly available to the over 350,000 Americans with print disabilities who are already Bookshare members.
So, in the United States, Benetech created a second equilibrium change. Instead of being read to, or using a tool to independently create their own accessible book in a few hours, a person with a visual impairment or dyslexia can access a book in seconds, which happens to be very close to the experience of a sighted ebook reader.
Born Accessible: The Final Frontier
Which brings us to our third phase: the one we have started but not yet completed. Bookshare is terrific, but it’s fundamentally a separate system where a specialized library becomes the primary source of books for its patrons. So, how might we accomplish even greater equality and put Bookshare mostly out of business?

Enter the Born Accessible movement. Benetech’s President, Betsy Beaumon, coined the motto: “If it’s born digital, it should be Born Accessible!” Our vision is that the same ebooks available through mass channels like the Amazon Kindle or the Apple iPad should be fully accessible. Through adding accessibility features to ebooks that are critically needed by people with disabilities, and helpful to many other people, we envision a world where all commercial ebooks work effectively for the community we serve. Right now we are successfully convincing major educational publishers to build accessibility features into their standard ebooks.
Bookshare Across Borders
Interestingly enough, while we’re busy trying to make Bookshare obsolete in the United States, we’re reaching out to the developed world to help engineer an accelerated equilibrium change for people with disabilities. We want to leapfrog the current unjust equilibrium (blind people are read to, but mostly not) to a new place where the widespread availability of cheap mobile phones and MP3 players can be harnessed. But, to make that happen, we need to recreate the favorable copyright policy environment we enjoy in the United States. And so we campaigned for the Marrakesh Treaty. This breakthrough instrument was negotiated in 2013 and has now been signed by over eighty countries. It makes a copyright exception like the U.S. one a global norm and allows for easy import and export of accessible materials.

Benetech didn’t accomplish all of this equilibrium change on our own. Others played key roles in conceiving important elements, frequently before we recognized them. The difference was our ability to leverage these powerful ideas into social change at scale by becoming the most dominant reading machine maker and then the largest online library for people with print disabilities. Putting these ideas for social change into action is a key part of the Osberg/Martin definition of social entrepreneurship. Our Silicon Valley tech community roots give us an inside track on technology and business model change. We believe that our track record demonstrates how to drive this kind of equilibrium change repeatedly.

Advancing Human Rights and Conservation

Although Benetech was founded in the accessibility field, our success in equilibrium change is not limited to helping people with disabilities. In the human rights field, we have been part of major shifts in practice. The first is in using data at scale to influence the human rights debate. Benetech’s Human Rights Program played a key role in making data a critically important part of the human rights debate. Our team believed that better data would lead to better policy and maybe even justice for the victims of large-scale atrocities. Benetech successfully spun off our data team as the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, an independent NGO. Whether it’s accurately reporting the number of people killed in Syria or explaining why the FBI’s count of American police killings is significantly underestimated, data is finally influencing the policy debate.

Benetech was also the first group to bring usable cryptography to the human rights field. Now, almost fifteen years later (and post-Snowden!), everybody in the field of social justice understands that governments are probably spying on them. It’s now the norm when developing software for collecting sensitive human rights data that it be encrypted to secure this information from other parties. We’re about to announce another advance which is designed to make it incredibly easy for human rights and social justice groups to have their own secure apps for collecting data about human rights issues. This means that LGBTI groups in Africa, Tibetan groups in exile, indigenous groups in Latin America, and activists fighting gender-based violence globally will all have better and more secure tools in 2016.

Benetech also supported data-based equilibrium change in yet another field: environmental project management. We were the toolmakers to the “results-based management” movement in conservation by developing Miradi, adaptive management software for conservation projects. Using the best practices in science and activism, Miradi brought business-like project management tools to conservation. In this case, the equilibrium change was primarily conceived of by our partners in the conservation movement, and our job was to build the technology that advanced this change. We are eagerly seeking our next opportunity to make this kind of impact around climate change and sustainability.


I thank Sally and Roger for a book that did more than just make me muse on the coolness of social entrepreneurship, but gave me a better framework for both where Benetech has been, and more importantly, where we’re going. I sincerely hope it inspires other social entrepreneurs to think even more ambitiously about social change at scale.


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