One of my Mozilla-related goals for the last year or so has been to increase the outward focus of the Mozilla project. For years we’ve been so focused on getting a great applications shipped that we’ve been extremely inwardly focused. I’ve been spending a chunk of time lately meeting people who are in and around the Mozilla space, trying to get to know people involved in the consumer side of the Internet and people interested in the non-profit world. (I know a lot of the enterprise folks already, thus the focus on the consumer side.)
I had lunch yesterday with Jim Fruchterman. Jim leads the BeneTech Initiative, a non-profit high-technology organization dedicated to building sustainable technology initiatives that address social problems. I met Jim courtesy of Kevin Lenzo, open source speech technologist from Carnegie Mellon University, who had been exploring uses of open source speech-related technology for providing greater accessibility in software. BeneTech has a range of technology projects in the literacy / accessibility and human rights areas.
Talking with Jim is always great. He’s got great experience with the organizational issues that affect a non-profit. Non profits are subject to both various state laws that govern the operation of a non-profit and various federal laws that govern the tax exempt status. It’s a complex area with only a few technology organizations represented. Any many of these — such as the Apache, Perl and Python Foundations — employ very few if any full time people. So finding someone with a number of years of experience in this area is wonderful.
Jim is also experimenting with different ways of generating funds to sustain these technological projects since traditional models don’t fit. And of course he’s thinking about how to generate funds and remain true to the mission of the project. These topics are very similar to those I think about with regard to the Mozilla project. I’m always drawn in by the process of understanding different perspectives and figuring out new ways to do things and Jim and I get together periodically to trade notes. Yesterday’s conversation was particularly interesting coming so closely after the venture capital focus of last week’s Women’s Technology Cluster awards ceremony. In that case the organizational model is known and the issue is finding the people, technology and market opportunities for successful execution of the model. Jim is trying to do something different, meeting needs of groups of people who aren’t likely to ever generate large return on capital investment. These problems — literacy, accessibility, human rights — need solving, and I hope we find some ways of making our vast technical capabilities available to those who need them so badly and can pay so little.