President's Update - Winter 2012

By Benetech, posted on

The opportunities for social change through technology keep increasing, and Benetech is committed to taking on much more! Not only do we need to take our existing innovations to more people, but we also need to increase our capacity to launch new projects and see that technology benefits far more of humanity.

I’ve always been very proud of our ability to raise most of our budget from revenues: from creating products and services that were purchased because of the value they created. It’s a part of the Benetech story I tell frequently. However, we need money to make new projects possible, to get them off the ground to where they can generate revenues. That’s a part of the story I don’t tell very often: the fact that we need enlightened donors to provide the rocket fuel to launch new ventures, or take technology to groups that simply don’t have much money (like human rights groups or people with disabilities in the developing world).

Someone I greatly respect who has known me for many years, who not long ago first became a Benetech donor, mentioned that I had never asked for his financial support. And I realized that I hadn’t, and that is a mistake I need to remedy.

I am asking for your support for Benetech today. If you make donations to nonprofit organizations, I hope you strongly consider becoming a Benetech supporter. Through the leverage of technology, we work philanthropic dollars incredibly hard: often getting ten times the impact compared to traditional charitable approaches to social problems. Whether it’s adding another book to Bookshare, reaching out to a person with a disability in the developing world, responding to urgent requests for help from human rights activists, or brainstorming a completely new idea for social good, we need, I need, your support.

My last letter talked about the seven truths that guide our work. This update is a chance to tell you what the Benetech team living those truths have made possible over the last year, and give you more insight on how we use philanthropic support to deliver great impact.

Highlights of this Update:

We blew the doors off for students! Five years ago, we won a national competition by committing to outlandishly aggressive objectives in delivering accessible books to American students with disabilities. We beat all of those objectives by scheduled end of our contract this September: serving over 200,000 students compared to the 100,000 we promised, adding over 100,000 new accessible book titles, and delivering more than 3 million accessible books. And, we were under budget to boot!

Our goal was to reinvent the traditional library for students with vision and learning disabilities, and go from solving less than 5% of the problem to solving most of it. In the U.S., we’re succeeding. And the news gets even better. The Department of Education liked our results so much they ran another five-year competition. We won that contest: $6.5 million a year for the next five years. Not only did we promise to serve over 400,000 students for level funding, but we also hope to expand the revolution. We want to make specialized libraries like Bookshare less needed, by helping commercial publishers of educational materials ensure that their mainstream ebooks are, from the start, perfectly accessible and usable for people with disabilities. Betsy Beaumon, the head of Bookshare, calls this “ensuring that materials that are born digital are born accessible.”

Now we’re working to spread the Bookshare revolution globally. And we need philanthropic support to replicate the successful U.S. model around the world. People with disabilities in the developing world have almost nothing when it comes to access to information. The economics of the Bookshare technology are such that we could help all of the developing world for a fraction of what it costs to run Bookshare in the U.S. For example, $10 provides a year of Bookshare: access to tens of thousands of accessible books for someone who is blind or has another print-related disability in the developing world. Just $50 is enough to add a new book to our virtual bookshelves, making it available to hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities. We think we can provide Bookshare to an entire developing nation for roughly $50,000 per year. Consider the transformative power of Bookshare in the developing world for such a modest investment.

Human Rights

Our human rights team is active all over the world, helping defend the defenders of human rights, and seeing that the stories of human rights abuse are a tool for justice. Martus, our free, open source, secure human rights reporting software is getting ready for a major set of technology improvements made possible by initial funding commitments from a range of donors who are passionate about human rights. Our dream is to have tools that work wherever human rights and social justice activists are, with whatever device is in their pockets as well as on their desk or laptop!

We picked Chiang Mai because of its proximity to long-time Martus partner the Network for Human Rights Documentation ­ Burma (ND-Burma), a consortium of a dozen human rights groups that have been working for nearly ten years on documenting abuses by the Myanmar government. With support from Benetech’s Human Rights Program, ND-Burma member organizations have used the truth of what communities in Burma have endured to advocate for change and to prepare for justice and accountability measures in a potential transition.

These are critically important times for Burmese human rights groups as Burma/Myanmar transitions through a period of rejoining the world community, where the opportunity to advocate for human rights inside the country looks real. I just visited ND-Burma in November and talked to both member groups and key donors about the opportunities ahead.

Our team is incredibly active all over the world. Whether it’s supporting the prosecution of secret police commanders in Guatemala, figuring out the casualties in Syria, or helping lesbian and gay groups document abuses in many countries, our team is using technology to further respect for human rights and combat impunity. Frequently, we get urgent requests for help: requests we don’t plan for because we don’t know they are coming. Yet, we know that each and every year there will be new demands from activists who are helping the victims of human rights abuses, documenting these crimes, and advocating for change. We are looking for supporters to increase our capacity to respond to these requests for help: today we must turn most of them away because of insufficient resources.

Social Impact Technology: SocialCoding4Good

We’re always looking for new ideas for technology ventures with the chance to make revolutionary positive impact. There are always new social enterprises incubating in Benetech’s Social Impact Technology group, waiting for the opportunity to start scaling up. This year we’re seeing a new Benetech venture gain exciting traction and are looking forward to launching SocialCoding4Good (SC4G) in 2013 as a full-fledged Benetech enterprise.

SC4G is exciting because it goes way beyond what Benetech can do by itself as an organization. SC4G is an online platform for highly skilled software technologists working at companies such as VMware, Cisco, HP, and Google, matching them up with open source social good volunteer opportunities. We’ve partnered with Benetech peers like Code for America, Wikimedia Foundation, Amara [formerly Universal Subtitles] and Mifos, to offer volunteer opportunities that will matter. We want to harness the energy of the hackathon movement to make change that will reach the communities who frequently need technology the most and are often least able to afford it. Our SC4G hackathons have already resulted in improvements in accessibility of math in textbooks, an Android prototype of Benetech’s Martus software for human rights, and projects for Mifos. With expanded support from donors and high tech companies, SocialCoding4Good will be able to transition from an initial pilot on a shoestring to a full-scale enterprise. We want to give technology professionals new ways to engage in Benetech’s work: we’d like to engage both the financial resources and the brainpower resources of the global tech community.


With the brains of Silicon Valley and hearts for social change, our Benetech team is about social change at scale. As a hardcore geek, I can’t imagine a more rewarding opportunity than seeing that technology does more for all of humanity. I hope you’ll join us as a supporter, partner, volunteer, or employee, and help us do far more!

Jim Fruchterman
President and CEO, Benetech