Daniel Ben-Horin, Founder/President, CompuMentor: Philanthropy and the Next-Generation Web

May 2, 2006
Daniel Ben-Horin, Founder/President, CompuMentor: Philanthropy and the Next-Generation Web

Today, five million years after humans emerged as a distinct species on the plains of East Africa, we are generating information at ever-faster speeds and in unprecedented amounts. As Alvin Toffler points out in Revolutionary Wealth, researchers have estimated that the amount of data, information, and knowledge produced and stored in 2002 alone was equivalent to that "contained in half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress," or roughly equal "to every word uttered by a human being since the dawn of time."

While still in its infancy, this global "megabrain," as Toffler calls it, is expanding at an unbelievable rate — and has spawned a new generation of Web-based tools designed to harness the collective intelligence of a billion human beings working feverishly to connect with each other and to be connected.

In March, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Daniel Ben-Horin, founder and president of CompuMentor, one of the largest nonprofit technology assistance organizations in the world, about the emergence of this so-called "social Web" and what nonprofits can and should do to tap its revolutionary potential.

In addition to its technology assistance work, CompuMentor is the operator of TechSoup, a nonprofit technology Web site, and TechSoup Stock, a distribution service for technology product donations. The San Francisco-based organization's newest initiative, NetSquared, is designed to help nonprofits use new Internet-based tools such as blogging and podcasting to extend their reach and impact.

Ben-Horin serves on the board of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and speaks and writes frequently on issues related to the underserved's access to technology. In 2004 and 2005, the Nonprofit Times included him on its "Power and Influence Top 50" list. A former journalist, he lives in San Francisco with his wife, Jamie, and their two teenage sons.

Philanthropy News Digest: You created CompuMentor in 1987. What need were you trying to address?

Daniel Ben-Horin: I was trying to address two needs simultaneously. Because I'd had exposure to them, I was very interested in the people who were characterized, at the time, as "tech nerds." Far from being nerdy, I had found most of them to be articulate and interested in the world around them. They certainly weren't the reclusive pocket-protector types popularized by the mass media, and I wondered what they could offer to society, given the opportunity. And, having worked extensively in the nonprofit world, the second need had to do with the fact that nonprofits were always the last to the table when it came to anything related to technology. The more I thought about the situation, the more it seemed to me that, with a little creative deployment of the "nerds," there might be an opportunity to move nonprofits a little closer to the meal, so to speak.

PND: What was the original CompuMentor service model? And how, if at all, has that model changed in the almost two decades since you started the organization?

DBH: The original model was quite simple. It basically involved reaching out to technology experts on The Well, one of the early pioneering online services here in the Bay Area, and asking them if they would volunteer to work with nonprofits that needed help with technology. Our role was to make sure that there was a match between the volunteer expert's skill set and the nonprofit's technology — to make sure that Mac guys weren't being sent to DOS sites, and so forth. That was the basic idea. So I went to an Oakland foundation, the L.J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation — which, by the way, no longer exists — and my contact there was willing to take a chance on this unproven notion and gave me a $2,500 grant. And with that, I was able to go on The Well, round up some volunteers, do a mailing to the foundation's grantees, make some matches, monitor the results, and declare victory.

PND: And today CompuMentor has a staff of 110 and a $15 million annual budget...

DBH: Not quite — more like $13.5 million. But, you know, our vision from the beginning was not that we were going to do this one thing, mentoring, and just grow it and grow it. The vision I was interested in, the vision the people who were part of the initial team were interested in, was to be nimble and flexible in response to what the "haves" — those with knowledge and resources — could offer to "have-nots," the technology-challenged nonprofits. For example, in the late 1980s, early '90s, nonprofits were just getting into online communication. Well, in the Bay Area, there were all sorts of tech startups looking to build customer bases that we could bring to the table as funders. So we began to develop programs that were specifically about helping nonprofits build networks to foster online communication. 

Our credo from the beginning has been that technology doesn't have to be grim....

At the same time, we began to move to more of a staff-based model, having learned that we could do a better, more reliable job of providing that kind of help if there was a staff component working with the mentors. From there, with support from the California Wellness Foundation, we moved into working with community technology centers. And then, serendipitously — though some might call it rank opportunism — I noticed that my friends at computer magazines in the Bay Area, all of whom were being inundated by review copies of shrink-wrapped software, were tossing boxes of the stuff into the garbage. They only needed one copy for review purposes, and the rest, from their point of view, was excess. But for us, it seemed like a way to make new software available to nonprofits so they could have some fun with the stuff. That's sort of been our credo from the beginning: technology doesn't have to be grim, you can have fun with it, and the more fun you have, the more you're likely to do with it.

So, we started making this grab bag of extra review copies available for very little, $5 or something, to nonprofits in the Bay Area. We started out with one or two copies of roughly two hundred titles, and over time that has morphed into what this year is going be about $200 million worth of products, retail value, into the nonprofit sector — mostly domestically, but increasingly on a global basis. We apply an administration fee to each transaction, which covers all handling and mailing and supports Tech Soup, the program we consider our value-add to the software program. The Tech Soup site provides the knowledge nonprofits need to effectively use the products they acquire through Tech Soup Stock, our software distribution arm. That's the value proposition we take to our vendors, that if they work with us they'll not only get efficient distribution for their products, their products will be distributed in an environment of knowledge and support. And the evolution of that model, over time, has been the key to our sustainability.

PND: Was it difficult, in the pre-Web years, to convince funders to support you?

DBH: Initially, like a lot of startups, we were viewed as a novelty and managed to secure our share of "neat idea" funding, which allowed us to make it to the next stage of organizational development — call it adolescence. But the stage after that, going from organizational adolescence to maturity, is the tough one, and in that sense we were fortunate in our timing. For us, that stage coincided with the economic boom of the 1990s and the general perception in the world of philanthropy that something important, if not well understood, was happening in the world of technology. As a result, organizations that had a track record and some credibility and a certain amount of chutzpah about technology could get a hearing.

In retrospect, those were... I'm not going to say easy — I'll never say that. What I will say is that it was easier in the boom years of the '90s to initiate a conversation with a funder. And that lasted right up until April of 2000, when the Nasdaq cratered. After that, a lot of foundations began to look at things differently, and to say things like, "To keep going as we have been with incremental technology support is incredibly expensive and the benefits of it are not immediately apparent." I guess what you see depends on where you sit, but there was a tremendous sense that the technology boom had been chimerical, that in lots of ways foundations had been led astray by predictions of a "long boom" and so forth. It was almost with satisfaction, I think, that many foundations began to say things like, "You know, we went this far, but we're not going any further. This stuff is not as good or as important as it was cracked up to be." There was a retrenchment, in other words. And the upshot was that from 2000 to pretty much the present, it has been much more difficult to get funding, although I think things are changing.  

[With the new generation of Web-based tools], funders can make small investments that have big impact, which is much more pleasant than huge investments with incremental impact....

I will say that I'm really glad we have a healthy earned-income stream. This is a hell of a time, in a lot of ways, to expect foundations to support what's needed, both in terms of nonprofit technology broadly, as well as in terms of support for nonprofit technology assistance providers. It's so expensive to do anything significant with tech, and there are so many competing needs, that it has been almost psychologically necessary for foundations to do a kind of triage and declare a truce, if not victory. That's one of the things that makes the new generation of Web-based tools so interesting. They're not nearly as expensive, and they facilitate community engagement, so funders can make small investments that have big impact, which is much more pleasant than huge investments with incremental impact.

PND: Do foundations "get" technology? Do they see technology as a critical component of nonprofit organizational capacity, and are they willing to fund it at levels that truly make a difference for their grantees?

DBH: I think I need to back up a little bit to answer that. Does "getting" technology mean being able to do a lot of cool things with these things we call computers? That's one form of getting technology. From the point of view of someone who works in philanthropy, though, I think a much more important way of getting technology would be to understand how technology is shaping specific organizations and institutions, the sector as a whole, and, when you come down to it, the times we live in. And my lens on all that is that we're dealing with two major disruptions.

The first happened with the advent of the personal computer. Regardless of when you date that to, by the 1990s and right up through the present we witnessed this incredible proliferation of technology on people's desks, at work and at home, and, increasingly, in their pockets. This has all cost an immense amount of money, but unlike, say the early and even the late '90s, when the productivity benefits of technology were claimed but not so apparent, we've passed to the stage where they are manifestly apparent. So philanthropies, which are full of intelligent people, have, over time, come to terms with how essential this back-office or behind-the-firewall infrastructure is for nonprofits. It's like electric lighting. If keeping the lights on is a given in our society, increasingly so are these techno-lights; it's the cost of doing business. And philanthropy has done a pretty good job of adjusting to that disruption, even though, as I just mentioned, it's expensive and competes with myriad other needs.

The second disruption is the one that, in our opinion at CompuMentor and Tech Soup, is happening now and started about a year or two ago. And that disruption has to do with the other side of the firewall — namely, what happens out in the world with technology that no single organization controls, can't control, or should want to control. What happens on the Web, to put it in the simplest possible terms, is now an absolutely pressing organizational question. What you do with the Web is not question number fifty, which is how it was viewed until very recently. It's question number one, or very close to that. It will impact how organizations get their work done, whether they survive, how they survive. It will influence who the new players are in any kind of socially engaged activity. I don't think philanthropy really gets that. I don't think anyone does, yet. I think a bunch of people are fumbling with it. It's all very new, very disruptive, and its permutations are far more social than they are technological. But it's where the excitement and challenge is, and it's still early days.

PND: Does it have a name?

DBH: The phrase I use is "social Web," which is less catchy than Web 2.0 but much more accurately suggests what this is all about, which is the empowerment of individuals to create, to connect with each other, to share tools and to experience themselves in society in a way that is fundamentally different than what was possible previously.

PND: What are you and your colleagues doing to tap into the energy and creativity coalescing around the social Web?

DBH: Well, we're fortunate we've been able to develop the business that is Tech Soup Stock and the revenue streams that comes with that, because in addition to giving us a certain amount of organizational stability, it also gives us the ability to look at something like the social Web and take the longer-term view. As an organization, we believe the thing which sets us apart is the set of cross-sectoral partnerships we've developed over the last twenty years. We also figure that because of these partnerships, we're especially well positioned to initiate a dialog about the implications of the social Web for social change. Our goal at this point is to create that dialog as quickly and effectively and in as action-oriented a way as we can — which is what the NetSquared project is designed to do — and then hang on. It's going to be a wild ride.

You know, a key part of the disruption we're talking about is the empowerment of the edges of the network, the empowerment of all the spokes in the wheel at the expense of the center of the wheel. You can't launch projects on the social Web and expect to direct them in a tightly controlled way. That's not to say you can't articulate your vision and influence what happens. Wikipedia is a great example of everything I'm talking about. It's the product of legions of essentially anonymous individuals contributing their knowledge and time to this thing they don't own or control but which, in an odd way, is theirs. Sure, in the background is something called the Wikimedia Foundation, which tries to impose broad standards on the collective effort and keep the vision focused. But in terms of Net Squared, I think we're going to see an incredible catalyzing of energy, lots of projects, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed in ways we can't even imagine, and we hope to be part of that.

PND: Terms like "social Web," "social software," "participatory media" — all of which have been used to describe aspects of the disruption we're talking about — are pretty new to most of our readers. Could you give us a couple of examples of nonprofits that are using some of the tools associated with the social Web to mobilize their constituencies? 

If nonprofits are looking to other nonprofits as their sole source of ideas and inspiration for social Web applications, they're missing a big part of the picture....

DBH: Sure. But first, I think it's really important to say that if nonprofits or foundations are looking, right now, to other nonprofits and foundations as their sole source of ideas and inspiration for social Web applications, they're missing a big part of the picture. To my mind, the Dean campaign in 2004, Craigslist, and eBay are all great examples of what's at stake here and what is possible. What they all have in common is that they utilize Web-based services and technologies, as distinct from shrink-wrapped software you buy and load onto your desktop or laptop, to excite and empower a user community that they probably wouldn't have reached with more traditional means. They also allow the user community to establish and enforce many of the rules of engagement for that community, while consciously trying not to "own" what the communities do. I don't think too many people think of eBay as the cutting edge of social change, but it's really important to the discussion we're having. It's a new way of organizing huge amounts of commercial information and allowing users, in a personalized way, to set their terms of engagement with that information, and, obviously, it's a huge success.

At the other extreme, you have small projects like Freechild that are using these tools. Freechild has intersected with MySpace, the huge social networking site, as well as Frappr, the community mapping service, and a collaboration tool called Writeboard, to engage youth in social change activities. Rather than sort of telling kids what they ought to do, Freechild gives them a set of tools to explore solutions to problems themselves.

Here's another example. We just had an event here in the Bay Area called Net Tuesday — we have them once a month, and they're one of the building blocks of our Net Squared effort. The point of them is to bring in someone from the technology industry to talk about a new tool and match them with a nonprofit that is using that tool. At the last one, we were fortunate to get Mena Trott, the president of Six Apart, which makes TypePad, the wildly popular blogging tool. On that particular night, Mena was followed by Seth Mazow, the techie by default at Interplast, which has been around since the late '60s and sends doctors around the world to perform reconstructive surgery for children in developing countries. I'm talking about surgery that's the difference between someone being permanently and horribly disfigured or living a more or less normal life.

Anyway, Interplast has a staff of about twenty, and for a long time it had a brochure kind of Web site and was really dependent on the media to tell its story. Then young Seth took it upon himself to get doctors affiliated with the organization to blog, and eventually they ended up with Six Apart's tool. Well, the Six Apart people were blown away when they saw how their tool was making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people around the world, and, after hearing Seth's presentation, they went to work to make it possible for volunteer surgeons, using their cell phones, to post before-and-after pictures to the Interplast site. That, as you might imagine, has increased the immediacy and impact of the site enormously.

PND: Are virtual communities like those created on the eBay and MySpace platforms a substitute for off-line communities? And if they aren't, what are virtual communities especially well suited to, and what are some of the things you can't do in a virtual community that you can do in an online community?

DBH: Well, the first thing I would say is that it's important, when we're talking about virtual versus face-to-face, not to think in terms of either-or. It's important when we ask these kinds of questions to examine what the word "community" means. You know, it's not as if people wake up in the morning and say, "I will go on to this community today and not that community." Our lives are the intersections of our work community, our neighborhood, our kids' school community, our family, our hometown, and so forth. In other words, we all belong to many communities at once. So, I think the way to approach this question is to ask, "What is going to be the impact of having virtual access to so many people?" — and not just virtual access in the sense that I can send somebody in Cleveland an e-mail. I mean, today, I can learn enough about that person — and he or she can learn enough about me — to know that we like the same bands, we like or dislike the same movies, we read the same books. So our online connection, if we both wanted it to, could be very rich. It might take time to get there — we can't just lean over the back fence and talk to each other — but the possibilities are fascinating.

There are implications to all this, of course, but — I know this will sound like I'm begging the question — I think the jury is still out. In fact, the jury hasn't even been impaneled. What we're seeing, I think, is that people aspire to a higher level of community, regardless of the form it takes. If you look back a bit, it's obvious that most people grew up in communities that revolved around their hometowns and families, and the erosion of those communities and community norms is a widely remarked phenomenon of American life. Hometown, family, workplace, bowling club — those kind of lifetime affiliations are under tremendous pressure. At the other end of the scale are the very ephemeral connections that come when you share your music with someone you've never met. Obviously, it doesn't replace your family, but what I think people are discovering is that some of these online interactions have the kind of value that makes you want to travel and meet that person, makes you want to stay in touch and not just have an ephemeral, online sort of connection. And what happens next will sort itself out in ways that are both predictable and unpredictable.

PND: As the social Web insinuates itself into every aspect of our lives, and as more power is pushed to the edges of the network, will the traditional role of the gatekeeper be weakened? And if so, is that something we should worry about? 

We all have our perspective on the value of the gatekeeper....

DBH: Yes, the gatekeeper role will be weakened. And we can worry about it all we want, but we might want to put our time to more productive use. We all have our perspective on the value of the gatekeeper. And what's going on now around the veracity or trustworthiness of the information in Wikipedia is an interesting lens through which to look at the question. I think it's fair to say that at any juncture and, really, in any field you can think of, there are people who have more property, if you will, and there are people who have less property — and I include intellectual property in that definition. Now, there's a natural bias on the side of the people who have property to want to keep it, just as there's a bias on the other side, among people with little or no property, to want to get some. I don't think anyone can predict the consequences of this trend toward less power and control for the gatekeeper and more power and control at the individual consumer/creator end. But I think one's sense of whether it's a good or bad thing has a lot to do with whether you think there's a correlation between positive evolution of the species and constructive, creative engagement between as many members of the species as possible.

I know that's very abstract, so maybe it would be better to talk about in the context of something like Wikipedia. I don't think the change in how information is organized and accredited is a bad thing. We're seeing abuses of something that is still pretty new, and I think the system has the means within itself to correct those abuses. For example, I recently saw a story about Senate aides accessing their boss's Wikipedia entries and "correcting" information to make it more laudatory. But what's worse for a politician: A less-than-flattering remark in a Wikipedia entry or a news story about how his aide tried to rewrite the entry to make him look good? I keep saying that we're in the early stages of all this, and as such it's hard to predict how it's going to shake out. But I truly believe that this is a fundamental disruption whose implications should not be compared to, say, another doubling of processor speed. This is a different creature entirely, and it's still way too early in its evolution to really see its true dimensions, except to say that they are large.

PND: CompuMentor, through its Tech Soup subsidiary, is a publisher of technology assistance information and therefore a gatekeeper of sorts. I couldn't help noticing that you've recently invited — indeed, are encouraging — people to republish Tech Soup content protected under the Creative Commons license. How did you arrive at that decision?

DBH: Well, I've enjoyed the interview up to now. [Laughter.]

Obviously, it's far easier to tell other people to not worry so much about having control of their content than it is to give up control of your own content. In fact, it has been a bear for us, at every stage. But we've decided to make that commitment, to embrace Creative Commons, to embrace transparency, to embrace the idea of sharing our information as freely and widely as possible. And I think it's the right thing to do, even if it's hard. It was easy to come up with reasons for why we couldn't, or shouldn't, do it. The most compelling one had to do with whether we had the capacity to deal with other organizations and constituents if they took our offer seriously. I mean, it's not like you push the content out and never see it again. Invariably, people who start to use that content will want other things from you; there's a feedback loop there. And dealing with that loop is time consuming, especially if you're a nonprofit organization that is already stretched in terms of its staffing and resources. I mean, suddenly, you have all these new constituencies engaging with you and editing your stuff and adding to it and improving it, or maybe not improving it. It can be crazy making. It really can be.

PND: Are you committed to seeing it through?

DBH: Absolutely. There's no going back for us. I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish about this, in terms of how we as an organization feel about it. At any given moment, someone on staff is having their ox gored as a result of that decision. But I think if you polled staff and asked them, "Are you in favor of CompuMentor and Tech Soup opening up their processes and essentially walking the talk of being an open-source organization and a social Web-oriented organization?" I think 90 percent to 95 percent of them would say "yes." And if you asked them, "Would you continue to work here if CompuMentor/Tech Soup didn't do that?" I think you'd get 30 percent to 40 percent 8212 a lot of them our best people 8212 saying they would leave. It's that important to people here. As for where it all leads, well, have I mentioned that I think we're all at a very early stage of a long process?

PND: As an organization determined to walking the open-source talk, what do you think nonprofits should be doing, right now, with respect to the social Web? Should they be committing resources to it? Should they be developing Web-based applications using some of the software tools we've been talking about? Or is it too early in the game for that?

DBH: I think one of the wonderful things about the social Web is that it has a built-in mentoring capacity. I mean, what I was trying to do with CompuMentor in 1987 happens almost automatically on the Web today; it's self-organized, and the enthusiasm level of the people who want to help is unbelievable. So, in terms of nonprofits adding Web 2.0 application developers to staff, that's not something they have to worry about. Instead, they should be looking for partners and allies who will be more than happy to contribute on that level.

We've always been an organization that has warned nonprofits against impaling themselves on the bleeding edge of technology....

As to the larger question of what nonprofits should be doing in general, I would say this. We've always been an organization that has warned nonprofits against impaling themselves on the bleeding edge of technology. Our message has been, Let someone else make the first mistakes. Match technology to the capacity of your staff. If you're excited about new technology and want to push the envelope, fine, but don't get caught up in technology for technology's sake. It's not about having the coolest Web site. It's about having the right Web site. So, it would be a contradiction for us to say, "You must be on the cutting edge of Web 2.0." We're not going to say that. Our problems, society's problems, intersect with a host of realities, not all of which can be influenced, in 2006, by what the social Web has to offer.

What we would say instead is, "Be open." One of the great changes in the nonprofit world has been the infusion of technical talent. I'm referring to the "accidental techie" phenomenon you see in the new generation of nonprofit employees, young people in their twenties and thirties who not only are idealistic and smart, but who also happen to be absolutely fluent with technology. And that's an opportunity for the 58-year-old white men and women, speaking as one of them, who run a lot of nonprofits. You want a sense of what's possible? A sense of which social Web-tool is right for your organization? Talk to the young people on your staff; bring them into the process. Remember the Interplast example I gave earlier? Seth Mazow was empowered by his superiors. They gave him a platform and encouragement, and he delivered for them. He brought his director of communications and public education 8212 a wonderful, seasoned veteran of the sector 8212 to the Net Tuesday event, and she was absolutely thrilled by the fact that he had, in effect, created this low-hanging fruit for her to grab.

PND: As these social Web tools become more powerful, do you expect them to change the way nonprofits do their work and, more broadly, the way Americans do philanthropy?

DBH: Well, yes. By definition, disruptions change things, usually dramatically, and I think nonprofits and philanthropy will both change. I was talking to someone the other day about homelessness in San Francisco, and it was one of those conversations in which we both expressed our frustration with how difficult it is to deal with the problem on an individual level, and how frustrating it was to come up with institutional solutions. Then somehow we started talking about the social Web and Net Squared, and the person I was talking to said, "Do you think we might ever see a movement whereby individuals on a one-to-one basis would relate to a homeless person?" And the more we talked about it, the more it seemed possible that people would be able to do something like that because it would be so easy for them to form a community and communicate with other people who were doing it, in ways that simply weren't possible before. I know that seems like quite a stretch from giving someone a dollar. But if you think about broad social disruptions, and you think about the way we've related to communities in the past and the way we might relate to them in the future, you have to believe that the world could change dramatically.

What does that say about philanthropy? Well, maybe philanthropy is looking at a future in which an incredible surge of super-empowered individuals assumes much of what has been the burden of organizations and institutions. I don't know. I'm not suggesting that institutions will go away. There's a big role for institutions in any scenario I can imagine. But they might be changed versions of the institutions we know today. Or they might be different institutions altogether. There might also be a lot more emphasis on what individuals are doing, and that, of course, would have important consequences for the way we do philanthropy. Philanthropy and nonprofits tend to operate with such a zero-sum-game mentality, but what we're starting to see now has the potential to explode that, which would be amazing.

PND: Well, thanks for speaking with us today. And best of luck with Net Squared.

DBH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Ben-Horin in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.