Benetech was founded to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit. The advantage of this difference becomes clear when you look at our approach: We combine our passion for developing technology for social good with a pragmatic business process.
At Benetech, we seek to advance technology solutions that work, but also have the potential to become financially self-sustaining. This keeps us focused on projects that offer the greatest social impact for the resources invested, and we can continue to meet social needs without requiring an endless supply of philanthropic support to do it.
Ultimately, we’re committed to developing technology for social good. That means always being open to the possibility that an idea, prototype or initiative developed by Benetech could help more people if we released it to a nonprofit partner or a socially conscious for-profit company. We may even conclude that a project isn’t going to work and needs to be put on a shelf.
Here is how our approach works:
Benetech’s New Project Assessment Method
A key to the success of our approach is our New Project Assessment Method. As we explore ideas that have potential, we apply this method to ensure the ideas would be viable, meet Benetech’s standards and be in line with our organizational truths.
While different parts of the method are applied at different stages of a new project’s lifecycle, all seven of the core elements below are applied before a project leaves the “Transition” stage:
- Chance for Transformative Change—Does the proposed solution lower the cost of delivering a social good by a factor of 10 or bring a technological capability to a community that didn’t have a solution at all?
- Meeting User Needs—What are the needs of the users and how will the proposed solution actually meet those needs and improve their lives?
- Low Technical Risk—How much existing technology can we apply to address the social need and avoid recreating the wheel?
- Distribution and Go-to-Market Plan—If the proposed solution can make a difference, how can we get it to the people who need it?
- Partnership Plan—Who are the cross-sector stakeholders we can engage to help us ensure that the proposed solution would have meaningful social impact?
- Financial Sustainability Plan—Does the proposed solution have a path to financial sustainability so that after the initial donor investment it can support itself on the revenue it generates?
- Exit Options—What are at least three exit options for the proposed solution?
What is the social need? How could technology meet that need? What would a prototype of a solution look like? These are some of the big questions we explore in Benetech Labs.
We established the Labs because, at any given time, Benetech has dozens of requests and new project ideas in our pipeline, coming from our extensive network of social innovators, social sector leaders and technology visionaries. These include other social entrepreneurs, nonprofit and for-profit partners, communities in need, donors and investors, as well as our own staff members, board members, users and volunteers.
We needed a space intentionally designed for exploring—to engage with the best and brightest and identify big ideas with the potential to successfully meet a pressing social need. And while some ideas don’t make it out of the Labs, others progress and become tools that help countless people.
Our Labs stage includes three core components:
- Explore and Identify Social Need—Technology has the potential to help millions in need around the world. Through many different channels, we explore and identify social needs that could be addressed with a targeted technological application, but continue to go unmet by the market.
- Generate Proposed Solutions—As we explore social needs, we also gather proposed solutions to address those needs. Ideas are generated through a range of activities, from individual conversations with issue-area experts to large gatherings with tech and nonprofit leaders. This process can help us dig deeper and discover new things about the social needs we’re trying to address.
- Prototype—There are often many different ways to solve a problem. That’s why we may design one or even a few prototypes that we feel have the best chance to make a big and positive impact. This gives us the ability to engage with different partners, funders and users to determine what possible solution is most viable.
We’ve identified an unmet social need, a solution we think may meet that need and early indications are that such a social enterprise would do well on our full assessment. Now, we cultivate support to bring this project to life and then improve on it as we develop and test a beta version with users. Our Project Incubation stage includes two components:
- Beta Build—Once seed funding is attained, Benetech engineers develop the beta from a prototype.
- Test and Refine—We then test the beta version with users and refine it based on the feedback we receive.
The project is in beta, but does it meet or beat the expectations of our initial assessment? What level of social impact will investing in this idea have? These are the big questions in the transition period.
At this point, Benetech’s New Project Assessment Method has been fully applied and we bring our progress on the project to potential users, partners and funders to gauge interest in the project’s future. This stage has one core component:
- Beta to Initiative or Beta to Exit—If sufficient interest isn’t there, we may put the project on the shelf or execute one of the planned exit options. If the interest and funding is there to bring the project beyond beta, then Benetech will work to graduate the project to become part of our formal initiatives.
Benetech and Beyond
Once into one of our program areas, we look for ways to grow and enhance our new initiative, product, or service in order to expand the impact we’re having in the lives of the people we help. Then, when we’ve accomplished our goal and achieved the necessary market or societal change, we determine when an exit makes sense.
- Scale—At Benetech, scaling means more than just growth—it also means collaborating to create systemic change. While we work to increase the number of people and communities we help with our technology, we also work with partners and global influencers to advance deep-rooted change so that all people have access to the technology they need, not just the few who can afford it.
- Exit—We are here to develop technology that improves the lives of those who need it most. When we accomplish that goal we then determine if there is more to do or if it’s time to consider exit options. Here are some examples of our past exits:
- In one case, we exited by selling the Arkenstone product line to a for-profit company that continued offering the products to users with disabilities. The sale provided Benetech the resources to invest in creating our Bookshare and Martus initiatives.
- In another case, we helped foster and grow one of Benetech’s initiatives, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, to the point where it could spin off into its own independent entity (HRDAG.org). The new organization can serve more people with their focused mission.
- And then there is the work we’re currently doing in our Bookshare initiative. We are collaborating with publishers and content creators so that they themselves can incorporate accessibility into the content creation cycle—and eventually into every eBook sold publicly. This means our most attractive exit option for present-day Bookshare is to no longer be needed. Eventually, we’ll have helped to solve the systemic accessibility challenge for those who are blind or have other print disabilities, ensuring that all content born digital will be born accessible.