How our for-profit company became a nonprofit, to better tackle the digital divide.
Originally posted on the Endless OS Foundation blog.
An 8-year journey to a nonprofit
On the 1st of April 2020, our for-profit Endless Mobile officially became a nonprofit as the Endless OS Foundation. Our launch as a nonprofit just as the global pandemic took hold was, predictably, hardly noticed, but for us the timing was incredible: as the world collectively asked “What can we do to help others in need?”, we framed our mission statement and launched our .org with the same very important question in mind. Endless always had a social impact mission at its heart, and the challenges related to students, families, and communities falling further into the digital divide during COVID-19 brought new urgency and purpose to our team’s decision to officially step in the social welfare space.
On April 1st 2020, our for-profit Endless Mobile officially became a nonprofit as the Endless OS Foundation, focused on the #DigitalDivide.
Our updated status was a long time coming: we began our transformation to a nonprofit organization in late 2019 with the realization that the true charter and passions of our team would be greatly accelerated without the constraints of for-profit goals, investors and sales strategies standing in the way of our mission of digital access and equity for all.
But for 8 years we made a go of it commercially, headquartered in Silicon Valley and framing ourselves as a tech startup with access to the venture capital and partnerships on our doorstep. We believed that a successful commercial channel would be the most efficient way to scale the impact of bringing computer devices and access to communities in need. We still believe this – we’ve just learned through our experience that we don’t have the funding to enter the computer and OS marketplace head-on. With the social impact goal first, and the hope of any revenue a secondary goal, we have had many successes in those 8 years bridging the digital divide throughout the world, from Brazil, to Kenya, and the USA. We’ve learned a huge amount which will go on to inform our strategy as a nonprofit.
Endless always had a social impact mission at its heart. COVID-19 brought new urgency and purpose to our team’s decision to officially step in the social welfare space.
Our unique perspective
One thing we learned as a for-profit is that the OS and technology we’ve built has some unique properties which are hugely impactful as a working solution to digital equity barriers. And our experience deploying in the field around the world for 8 years has left us uniquely informed via many iterations and incremental improvements.
With this knowledge in-hand, we’ve been refining our strategy throughout 2020 and now starting to focus on what it really means to become an effective nonprofit and make that impact. In many ways it is liberating to abandon the goals and constraints of being a for-profit entity, and in other ways it’s been a challenging journey for me and the team to adjust our way of thinking and let these for-profit notions and models go. Previously we exclusively built and sold a product that defined our success; and any impact we achieved was a secondary consequence of that success and seen through that lens. Now our success is defined purely in terms of social impact, and through our actions, those positive impacts can be made with or without our “product”. That means that we may develop and introduce technology to solve a problem, but it is equally as valid to find another organization’s existing offering and design a way to increase that positive impact and scale.
We develop technology to solve access equity issues, but it’s equally as valid to find another organization’s offering and partner in a way that increases their positive impact.
The analogy to Free and Open Source Software is very strong – while Endless has always used and contributed to a wide variety of FOSS projects, we’ve also had a tension where we’ve been trying to hold some pieces back and capture value – such as our own application or content ecosystem, our own hardware platform – necessarily making us competitors to other organisations even though they were hoping to achieve the same things as us. As a nonprofit we can let these ideas go and just pick the best partners and technologies to help the people we’re trying to reach.
Digital equity … 4 barriers we need to overcome
In future, our decisions around which projects to build or engage with will revolve around 4 barriers to digital equity, and how our Endless OS, Endless projects, or our partners’ offerings can help to solve them. We define these 4 equity barriers as: barriers to devices, barriers to connectivity, barriers to literacy in terms of your ability to use the technology, and barriers to engagement in terms of whether using the system is rewarding and worthwhile.
We define the 4 digital equity barriers we exist to impact as:
1. barriers to devices
2. barriers to connectivity
3. barriers to literacy
4. barriers to engagement
It doesn’t matter who makes the solutions that break these barriers; what matters is how we assist in enabling people to use technology to gain access to the education and opportunities these barriers block. Our goal therefore is to simply ensure that solutions exist – building them ourselves and with partners such as the FOSS community and other nonprofits – proving them with real-world deployments, and sharing our results as widely as possible to allow for better adoption globally.
If we define our goal purely in terms of whether people are using Endless OS, we are effectively restricting the reach and scale of our solutions to the audience we can reach directly with Endless OS downloads, installs and propagation. Conversely, partnerships that scale impact are a win-win-win for us, our partners, and the communities we all serve.
Our Endless engineering roots and capabilities feed our unique ability to build and deploy all of our solutions, and the practical experience of deploying them gives us evidence and credibility as we advocate for their use. Either activity would be weaker without the other.
Our engineering roots and capabilities feed our unique ability to build and deploy digital divide solutions.
Our partners in various engineering communities will have already seen our change in approach. Particularly, with GNOME we are working hard to invest in upstream and reconcile the long-standing differences between our experience and GNOME. If successful, many more people can benefit from our work than just users of Endless OS. We’re working with Learning Equality on Kolibri to build a better app experience for Linux desktop users and bring content publishers into our ecosystem for the first time, and we’ve also taken our very own Hack, the immersive and fun destination for kids learning to code, released it for non-Endless systems on Flathub, and made it fully open-source.
What’s next for our OS?
What then is in store for the future of Endless OS, the place where we have invested so much time and planning through years of iterations? For the immediate future, we need the capacity to deploy everything we’ve built – all at once, to our partners. We built an OS that we feel is very unique and valuable, containing a number of world-firsts: first production OS shipped with OSTree, first Flatpak-only desktop, built-in support for updating OS and apps from USBs, while still providing a great deal of reliability and convenience for deployments in offline and educational-safe environments with great apps and content loaded on every system.
However, we need to find a way to deliver this Linux-based experience in a more efficient way, and we’d love to talk if you have ideas about how we can do this, perhaps as partners. Can the idea of “Endless OS” evolve to become a spec that is provided by different platforms in the future, maybe remixes of Debian, Fedora, openSUSE or Ubuntu?
Build, Validate, Advocate
Beyond the OS, the Endless OS Foundation has identified multiple programs to help underserved communities, and in each case we are adopting our “build, validate, advocate” strategy. This approach underpins all of our projects: can we build the technology (or assist in the making), will a community in-need validate it by adoption, and can we inspire others by telling the story and advocating for its wider use?
We are adopting a “build, validate, advocate” strategy.
1. build the technology (or assist in the making)
2. validate by community adoption
3. advocate for its wider use
As examples, we have just launched the Endless Key (link) as an offline solution for students during the COVID-19 at-home distance learning challenges. This project is also establishing a first-ever partnership of well-known online educational brands to reach an underserved offline audience with valuable learning resources. We are developing a pay-as-you-go platform and new partnerships that will allow families to own laptops via micro-payments that are built directly into the operating system, even if they cannot qualify for standard retail financing. And during the pandemic, we’ve partnered with Teach For America to focus on very practical digital equity needs in the USA’s urban and rural communities.
One part of the world-wide digital divide solution
We are one solution provider for the complex matrix of issues known collectively as the #DigitalDivide, and these issues will not disappear after the pandemic. Digital equity was an issue long before COVID-19, and we are not so naive to think it can be solved by any single institution, or by the time the pandemic recedes. It will take time and a coalition of partnerships to win. We are in for the long-haul and we are always looking for partners, especially now as we are finding our feet in the nonprofit world. We’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to reach out to me – I’m ramcq on IRC, RocketChat, Twitter, LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.