Tactical Philanthropy Podcast: Daniel-Ben Horin

My guest today is Daniel Ben-Horin. Daniel is founder and president of CompuMentor and TechSoup, who are behind the NetSquared Conference. Daniel discusses the history of CompuMentor, how technology is transforming nonprofits, explains the vision behind NetSquared, and reflects on the use of “wisdom of crowd” techniques in philanthropy.

Expand this post using the link below to read the transcript.

[intro music]

Sean Stannard-Stockton: Hello, and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, and a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is Daniel Ben-Horin. Daniel is founder and president of CompuMentor and TechSoup, who are behind the NetSquared Conference. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us today.

Daniel Ben-Horin: My pleasure.

Sean: Daniel, why don’t you start off and tell us what CompuMentor does, and what led you to founding the nonprofit in 1987?

Daniel: CompuMentor came out of an experience I had in one of the early online communities, the WELL, which was spawned by the “Whole Earth Review,” and actually stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I’d been the director of an organization called Media Alliance, which we founded in the computer lab which I never used because it was 30 feet down the hall and I was trying to figure out how to use my own first computer, a Kaypro 2X. But somehow, getting away from my computer and trying to learn in a lab just didn’t feel right.

And after I left Media Alliance, I was still pounding away at the Kaypro and holding, like many people, an idea of the nerds out there–these sort of new breed of folks who presumably had pocket protectors full of pens, asocial, and no interest in anything other than the new technology. That was the image that I held, until my next-door neighbor insisted that I log on to the WELL. And in fact, I refused, just didn’t pay any attention for a while, until he, like a good nerd, insisted, and came over and sat next to me and logged me on with my 300-baud modem.

What I found was a community of people who were incredible. I saw how shallow the stereotype was. These people were highly engaged with social issues, were very articulate–very passionate, in fact, about social issues–and very busy, very occupied with being on the edge of new technologies. But it seemed to me, very interested in reaching out, if they were given a way that would really use their skills.

And so that, in combination with experiencing the power of having my neighbor sitting next to me at my own computer showing me what to do, led to CompuMentor. The simple idea was that we would ask the people on the WELL to be mentors at the sites of nonprofits, and we would see what would come out of it. And what’s come out of that 20 years later is NetSquared, although, there’s been quite a bit in-between.

Sean: Sure. What are the basic services, or what does CompuMentor do for nonprofits today?

Daniel: I often say that CompuMentor is the dog and TechSoup is the tail, and that over time the tail has sort of eaten the dog. Today, the single main thing, the anchor of our program, is that we administer a website called TechSoup and a product philanthropy platform that is closely integrated into TechSoup, which is called TechSoup Stock.

And we, over the years, have gained the confidence and business of most of the major software companies, and also Cisco, a very prominent hardware company, as the administrator of their product philanthropy programs. So for these companies, it’s a goal, to be good corporate citizens and provide support to the nonprofit sector, and the way they prefer to do that is by donating the products they make.

Our proposition to them is that we will qualify recipients, that we will handle the administration, and that we will support the use of those products once they reach the recipient. So that support is provided through the knowledge platform that TechSoup is, and through a host of relationships we maintain with technology providers around the country, whom we try to support in various ways.

We also undertake projects ourselves. We do a lot of work with the Gates Foundation, with libraries, in domestic libraries, and try to bring those learnings back to TechSoup and the broader community.

So at this point in our evolution as an organization, we provide products, we provide knowledge, we go out into some areas that are difficult to fund work in at the outset, and try to explore the terrain and come up with ways of accessing resources in different ways and supporting nonprofits. So we have a program for refurbished computers, and as I mentioned, the library work, and then this NetSquared, our effort to support web services, the social web in a social entrepreneurial and nonprofit context.

Sean: One more question before we move on to NetSquared. Most people, I think, can look around them and see how technology has transformed corporations and transformed consumer products. And people feel like the various services and products that they buy are different than they were, due to technology.

But I have the sense that most people don’t know how technology has really changed the nonprofit world, or even wonder if it has. Has technology really transformed the products and services that nonprofits can offer?

Daniel: Well, it has. I think, in many ways, the nonprofit world lags behind the private sector. In some ways, nonprofits are simply small and medium-sized businesses, but in other ways, they are very distinct entities that operate in a different way than the private sector. So to the extent that they are the same–that they’re just small and medium-sized, and in a few cases large, enterprises–they have to use all the software that any such enterprise would use.

And they have been acquiring that software over the years and the hardware to run it on, not quite as quickly as the private sector and with more financial constraints, so there’s more kludged systems and less elegant setups.

One of the jokes, so to speak, of the nonprofit sector is that when people from the private side come in and try to help, and they look at a messed up computer system, they’ll say, “Well, let’s get a new one.” And that kind of alternative is not as available to nonprofits as anyone would like. And the efforts to sort of dance around the lack of financial resources and still come up with effective results is an ongoing one that causes some apparent backwardness, just because, often, the resources aren’t there.

On the level that nonprofits aren’t like businesses, I think things will get pretty interesting, because nonprofits are in the business, so to speak, of doing the things that society needs done but no one really wants to go out and try to make a living at doing and create enterprises to perform, in the private-side sense.

So nonprofits are often very engaged with serving low-income communities, in one form or another, and traditionally, nonprofits serve those communities in a very center-out model. The people at the nonprofit, working with their funders, perhaps, and their boards, will decide what the communities needed and will try to provide those services to the community.

What’s changed, and how technology has, I think, changed that equation, is that as technological tools and communication tools do penetrate the larger community–even the under-served communities–nonprofits are hearing from their constituents in a new way. And they’re realizing that they can’t simply have a one-way street of deciding what’s best and trying to provide it.

There has to be a dialogue, and if that dialogue is a fruitful one, then the non-profit has access to forms of support that it couldn’t buy. It can successfully advocate; it can get volunteers; it can raise funds. So, that sense of both opening up of decision-making and potentially creating a different dynamic and reaping the results of that, I think is a very current phenomenon within the non-profit world.

Sean: Obviously, one of the places where we can see technology transforming non-profits is at NetSquared. Tell us about the vision behind NetSquared. How did you get into this, and how is it evolving?

Daniel: I have two words to say about NetSquared, and those are “Marnie Webb.” Marnie is our Vice President for Knowledge Services, and really the intellectual author of NetSquared. I certainly would want to credit her as the main strategist of this project. It’s a two-year-old project.

Marnie and I were looking at this burgeoning 2.0 world–put yourself back in the fall of ’05. We were testing an idea, which was that the shift of technical intelligence from the desktop to the web, the array of web services, and the different kinds of ways that people could utilize technology that resulted from that platform shift represented a particular opportunity for non-profits. That was the idea we were chewing on.

We thought that there was a case to be made that one of the key ramifications of this shift–of the proliferation of web-based services–was that the onus was being taken off the stuff non-profits had the least of, which was money and resources of that kind that they needed, hard resources that they needed to buy stuff.

The shift was going toward–actually, non-profits had more of than anyone else, and that was access to communities, if they did it right. It suggested to us that there was something over the horizon that was very exciting: non-profits that could tap into their communities to such an extent that they could actually get social impact work done on a much higher level.

A metaphor that we always like here is that if you think of everything that has gone into Wikipedia, with so few staff and so much contribution from the community that is excited by the concept of an encyclopedia built on collaboration and which accepts a set of protocols that enable it to function in an efficient way. If you take that idea and think could that be applied to AIDS, could that be applied to hunger, could people be so motivated to solve a social problem that they operate at the same degree of contribution and efficiency as characterized by Wikipedia, and quite a few of the other noteworthy social web projects.

So, from that intellectual starting point, we thought about what could we do as an organization. What do we have to bring to the table? Now, what we think we have to bring to the table is a set of relationships.

We’re an unusual organization in that because of the product program, we have strong corporate relationships. Because we serve non-profits, we have a huge database of opted-in non-profits. We’ve been working closely with philanthropy for 20 years; we have, we hope, a significant degree of trust and competence there. We have a lot of people who are right out there in the blogosphere and highly woven into the web, and bring us back that form of intelligence and contacts. We consider ourselves a social change organization–an activist organization–from the outset, so, in that sense, we’re connected on more than a technical assistance level with the non-profit sector and the social change sector.

The idea was could we bring all these audiences into one place and create a discussion that was distinctly oriented toward impact–toward how can we help projects that have potential succeed. And that was the first NetSquared, a very lively, if talk-heavy, conference. Very disparate speakers: speakers from Microsoft, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Hong Eun-taek from OhmyNews in Korea, Dan Gillmor, the list goes on, and Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink; a very disparate set of speakers at a technology conference who got people very excited.

But, for the second NetSquared, which is coming up at Cisco on May 29th and 30th–the first one was also hosted by Cisco, for which we’re extremely grateful–we decided to really shift the dial toward helping specific projects succeed. That led to the nomination process. We ran the community vote; a process we’re in the middle of now, of preparing the projects–the 20 that were selected out of the nomination process–helping them to develop their pitches. Then, they’ll compete at NetSquared for a share of the $100, 000 innovation fund we set up, and for a lot of other resources–non-monetary–that will be in the room. We hope to continue to keep coming to the table for these kinds of projects on an on-going basis.

Sean: You’ve really gotten a lot of interesting people into the room, in the audience: a lot of representatives of the major most forward-thinking foundations. Why are they coming to this conference as opposed to other social enterprise conferences?

Daniel: I think a lot of these people stay very informed and get out there quite extensively. But you’re right; from my observation of conferences, it’s an unusual concentration of philanthropists who are really interested in not just technology as a generic field but where it’s going, what the edge is, and what that represents for their programs and their philanthropic interests. Frankly, they’re even more interested than I expected; I thought it would be a harder sell to get funders into the room. As such things go it was relatively easy.

I think that if you look at what a number of the foundations are doing, this is of interest broadly in the philanthropy world. How do you distribute decision-making, on some level? How do you get a wider degree of input from the field? How do you make yourself smart through the–I guess you could say–wisdom of the crowd–wisdom of the field might be a little less threatening way to say it. How do you eventually equip the projects you fund with the support they need to succeed down the road?

I think there’s, slowly, more humility in philanthropy, and a recognition that philanthropic dollars, as large as they may seem to earnest, would-be recipients, are very small, and ultimately, by themselves, are limited in what they can achieve. So, if you’re going to invest $10, 000, or a $100, 000, or a million dollars, or 10 million dollars in a particular project, it’s not enough in of itself. That project needs to be equipped to use new tools and to use new communities in an on-going way. If those communities are brought in on the front-end of the process in some fashion that increases the odds that they’ll stick around to support the projects down the road.

I think that’s interesting to certain people in philanthropy, and they see this conference as a way of exploring those ideas with their peers, and helping us make a creative mess of a sort, and find out what kind of projects rise to the top in this process and if and how they can be equipped to succeed in the next year.

Sean: So, tell us about the conference itself. What are the finalists going to go through, and what do you hope the process achieves?

Daniel: Firstly, I’d venture to say the process is the reward. Maybe some the projects that heard that would put a contract out on me. Some of them–I think they were half joking–are telling us that all the help they’re getting between now and the conference is just killing them. I think it’s a joke.

The idea was that these 152 projects nominated themselves. By nominating themselves the statement they were making was they had a strategy they could defend along three parameters: economic sustainability, smart use of new web-based technologies, and social impact. Of course, they varied widely. The first round of voting was open to anyone who cared to register at NetSquared and, presumably, take the time to sift among the projects and make an informed choice of at least five, and no more than ten, of the nominated projects, with only one vote going to each.

We, essentially, tried to run a campaign where it was in your interest to recruit voters, but those voters could not pack the ballot box for the project that recruited them. Still, it favored projects that had some kind of installed base to start with. Out of that process, 20 of the projects were elected to go to the second round.

The next round is to come to NetSquared, at our expense, and pitch, along those three parameters, on three separate tracks. Each track will have a review panel of expert reviewers. We have business people serving as reviewers on the economic sustainability track, technologists on the technology track, and activists and thinkers of different kinds on the social impact track.

The projects will be in a “fish bowl” situation; each of the expert reviewers will have reviewed the project beforehand, and will offer their critique and comments. We’re encouraging a kind of “tough love.” The people in the room will have a chance to chime in; the project will defend itself, and it’s on to the next project. At the end, the people in the conference will vote. The top project will get 25, 000; the second, 15; third 10, then we will divide the remainder of the 100, 000 among the others.

So, it’s not quite Simon Cowell kind of tough, but it’s definitely an attempt to get these projects to raise their game, to talk about themselves in terms of sustainability, and to, in some sense, compare themselves to others. While that’s happening, were hoping a lot of other things are happening, such as projects finding each other and deciding, if they share goals, to throw in together or to pool resources, and to realize economies in that way. A lot of what projects need isn’t dollars.

So, part of the proposition here is that we’re putting together something called an “innovators support network” in which, just to name one example, Tara Hunt and Chris Messina of Citizen Agency, which is a highly thought of Web 2.0 marketing firm, are making $15, 000 of their services available to one of the projects. There will be this matching and pairing–identification of resources and matching of resources to projects, and we’ll monitor all that over the course of the next year.

It’s very much an exploration Sean. We’re not kidding ourselves that this is a protocol that is ready to be baked, packaged, and shipped. But, we think there’s a sense of possibility and we can bring enough to make that real, that it’s worth looking at with some rigor over the next year. NetSquared Year Three in 2008 will be something else again.

Sean: OK Daniel, I have one last forward-looking question for you. I think what sets NetSquared apart from other social enterprise competitions is the purity of the wisdom of crowd’s concept that you used. Leveraging the wisdom of crowds in this kind of a process is still an emerging science, or maybe it would be better characterized as an art. Do you think this process can emerge as an important one for non-profits and the philanthropic field?

Daniel: You know, I have to push back at the concept of the purity of wisdom of crowd’s process that we use. In many ways, we just thought we had to start somewhere. When the projects that nominate themselves include a project like Freecycle, which is a recycling project that already has several million, as I understand it, users around the world, well, they had a profound advantage. They could get to the crowd more effectively than could a project that might have a huge amount to recommend it, but no installed user base.

I was talking to someone and I said, “Next year we want to do a better job of allowing people to compare apples to apples,” and he said, “Yeah, instead of apples to pianos,” which I thought was touché!  So, purity is not a word I would own as applying to this process.

On the other hand, as I said before, I think there is a tremendous upside if the crowd feels ownership and feels involvement. If one posits that there’s a spirit of collaboration abroad in the world, really, and that this is a powerful new impetus as people find out for the first time in human history that they can put their shoulder to the wheel of a project, or, for that matter, a transaction, with someone across the globe, and it can be effective and it can make a difference.

This is new, I think, in our history as a species, and people are exploring that. If we can create conditions where that exploration grids with–aligns with–creating social benefit, and raise up projects that make that very tangible, then, I think, the flame will be worth the candle. The contribution of the crowds, as you’re putting it, will be increasingly recognized as something you don’t want to do without. It will become seen as a building block for success in projects that really aspire to a broad reach and high impact.

Sean: Well Daniel, thanks for your time. I’m really looking forward to the NetSquared Conference.

Daniel: Thank you Sean.

Sean: This has been the Tactical Philanthropy Podcast. You can visit us at tacticalphilanthropy.com. For more information about CompuMentor and TechSoup visit techsoup.org, and learn more about NetSquared at netsquared.org.