The Power of Software: From Commerce to Communities

By Joel Riciputi, posted on

I recently had the opportunity to sit down for a Q&A session with Benetech board member Sam Bright to talk about how software can deliver social good. Sam is the Vice President of Soft Goods, North America at eBay. Most recently he led the Arts & Collectibles business unit at eBay with a portfolio ranging from high-end antiques to pop culture and cryptocurrencies. Prior to that, Sam was in charge of eBay’s Strategic Partnerships-Business Development team.

Last year under Sam’s leadership, the Arts & Collectibles unit had its most profitable year at eBay. Plus, it hit the highest volume year for the Americas. I call that a pretty good start. And that’s just a quick glimpse when it comes to Sam’s impressive background. To learn more about his work and how he got to where he is today, check out this top-notch piece in Black Enterprise. Without further ado, let’s jump into the conversation with Sam.

Sam Bright

Why does using software to deliver social good resonate with you?

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but let’s focus on a couple of them. It has to do with impact and scale above everything else. First is on the personal front. I’m motivated by how I can drive impact and scale for social good through various means. Using software offers the potential for a transformational ability to do that, particularly with a finite amount of resources, which is often the case in the social sector and for nonprofit organizations.

I grew up in a family that believed in the importance and value of service to the community. As a result, I have a sense of responsibility to open doors to opportunities more broadly for those that are less fortunate. When looking at which causes I want to support with both my time and treasure, what’s most important is how and where I can get the highest return through the impact that organization or cause can make happen. That’s what made Benetech stand out for me and why I am actively involved as a Board member.

On the professional front at eBay, we have a platform that brings together buyers and sellers and enables trusted commerce. So I have the opportunity to witness firsthand the power of software to drive scale in my professional life while on the personal side it is all about making an impact. The ideal opportunity for me is something that enables the marrying of those two: using software to make lasting, social change happen at scale. Benetech is a great example of that combination.

What advantages or benefits can software bring to the social sector?

Several points come to mind, and they really become a lifecycle when you look at them as a whole. The first advantage is problem identification. Software enables the ingestion and processing of data to uncover patterns and opportunities. In the for-profit world, these are business and market opportunities. In the nonprofit or social sector, these can be opportunities to right a wrong or uncover opportunities to bring good to even more communities and individuals. Software also provides the ability to identify big problems. For example, with Benetech, one of the projects I am excited about is their initial work to unlock the potential of millions of pieces of digital evidence, including photos and videos taken in Syria, by supporting the UN’s Syrian justice mechanism and working with leading NGOs documenting atrocities in Syria. By applying machine learning and computer vision to publicly available sources, the goal is to uncover human rights violations and promote accountability and the rule of law in Syria and post-conflict settings worldwide.

Next is connectivity. The use of software and data can help multiple social sector organizations that are all striving to solve the same problem and bring them together. This in turn helps to address the issue more effectively and efficiently with a better use of finite resources in the sector. Software inherently enables this collaboration and efficiency. In the social sector, this means the potential to scale impact even further along with more capability to amplify the message and engage with the community. In a nutshell, we’re talking about bringing efficiency to the entire ecosystem around a particular field or issue.

Third is scale – which obviously ties to connectivity. Scale enables an organization to replicate themselves or their work in the most effective way. Let’s take Benetech Service Net as an example. Information on available social and human services such as access to healthcare, food or shelter is often scattered and hard to find, in many cases for understandable reasons. Individuals in need typically don’t have the resources to hunt down the information on what services are available.

Benetech Service Net is an open standards data exchange platform that allows for more accurate, timely, and cost-effective maintenance of social services resource data. It enables data collaboration between many service providers and database directories and captures that information in one place so that ultimately we can put those safety net services at the fingertips of people that need them to live and prosper. We’re seeing that collaboration already here in the Bay Area. Software is far more effective and efficient at tracking and updating the information on those services versus manual approaches where data is easily lost or can quickly become dated. The last thing someone fighting for basic needs wants is an additional hassle that can in fact be solved through the use of software. Additionally, nonprofits don’t need to be spending time and resources on tasks that can be addressed more efficiently with software.

Last, but certainly not least given the importance is measurability. By bringing together the first three points of identification, connectivity and scale, social sector organizations have a platform to measure their impact – how well they are solving the problem they are trying to address. And again, it’s about the most effective use of finite resources. If I am investing time or treasure to create and drive social good, I want to know that it is making a difference. Nonprofits can determine what is effective and what is not and iterate, changing their approach when needed. Software has a unique and transformational role to play from identification to measurement.

So there you have it. Words of wisdom from a business leader at one of Silicon Valley’s best known software platform companies connecting millions of buyers and sellers around the world, on the impact and importance of software for the social sector. I want to thank Sam for his insight and ongoing support. Together, with our partners, users and supporters we look forward to making more social good happen at scale with the power of software.