Circumstances compelled a nonprofit tech entrepreneur to get more involved in policy and advocacy work in Washington, DC. That’s when he realized just how critical such work can be for creating social change at scale.
By Jim Fruchterman, CEO, Benetech
For many years, people frequently suggested that Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead, get more involved in Washington, DC policy and legislative action. “Isn’t that where good ideas go to die?” I’d say, dodging the recommendations. Our longest-term donor, the Skoll Foundation, went so far as to introduce me to a DC-based advocacy firm. My reaction was that this kind of advocacy work was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
I was wrong.
You see, several months later, the federal Department of Education challenged us to compete against a well-respected national nonprofit 60 times our size in a bid to provide accessible educational materials for US students who are blind, dyslexic, or otherwise print disabled. Against all odds, we—a novice bidder with a less than $1 million-a-year program—won a five-year, $32.5 million contract to do just that. We were elated and eager to get to work.
It turned out, however, that we were too quick to rejoice. Multiple senators called the secretary of education asking for explanations of how earmarked funding ended up in the hands of “nobodies from California” who had never lobbied Congress. We were up against immense political pressure to rescind the award.
That’s when I called that advocacy firm, a “luxury” that soon became indispensible. I was surprised to find that advocacy wasn’t just about politics and pressure. I met key Congressional staffers who deeply cared about disability issues, and who had comprehensive knowledge of the issue. We didn’t have to convince them that students with disabilities had important needs. Instead, our biggest challenge was convincing them that our approach was the best approach for meeting those needs.
We’ve since learned many lessons about the multiplier effect of advocacy. For example, we recognized that Congressional staffers, elected officials, and political appointees across the spectrum with few exceptions are excited about innovative approaches that better solve a social challenge with the same (or less!) money than existing approaches. We’ve learned that there’s immense power in showing up in Washington with new ideas based on actual performance in the field—and that Washington is no less technical than Silicon Valley; the difference lies in what the famous scholar and activist Larry Lessig describes as “East Coast code” (laws) vs. “West Coast code” (software). Like many philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who are eager to make large-scale change, we found that redirecting government policy and funding to more effective approaches offers tremendous leverage for realizing national (and international) impact.
Fast-forward six years. Bookshare, our accessible online library, has reshaped the accessibility field and now serves over 250,000 members (the majority of whom are US students) with a collection of nearly 220,000 (and counting) accessible books—the world’s largest repository of its kind. When students with disabilities need a book for school or simply want to read the same book as their peers without disabilities, they are likely to find that title—in the format of their choice—in Bookshare, with Benetech delivering it for less than one-fifteenth of the cost of traditional approaches.
Bookshare today is part of a broader effort by Benetech’s Global Literacy Program to improve the lives and learning of students with the biggest challenges. Policymakers now recognize the quality and impact of our work, and our expertise is often tapped, to great success, in legislative and policy discussions of crucial topics in education, technology, human rights, diplomacy (including treaties), and innovation.
Benetech was founded to be a different kind of Silicon Valley tech company—a nonprofit dedicated to creating social change at scale. Advocacy, we’ve recognized, is essential for realizing our vision of a world where the benefits of technology reach all of humanity, not just the richest five percent.
Jim Fruchterman is a leading social entrepreneur and CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit technology company based in Silicon Valley. He is a former rocket scientist who develops technology to address unmet social needs. Fruchterman founded Benetech in 1989 to produce reading machines for people who are blind. Since then, Benetech’s work has grown to include multiple program areas and the company now develops technology for people with disabilities, as well as for the human rights and environmental movements. Fruchterman has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. He believes that technology has the power to improve—even transform—the lives of people all across the world.