The twenty-four case studies in Made with CC were chosen from hundreds of nominations received from Kickstarter backers, Creative Commons staff, and the global Creative Commons community.
We did background research and conducted interviews for each case study, based on the same set of basic questions about the endeavor. The idea for each case study is to tell the story about the endeavor and the role sharing plays within it, largely the way in which it was told to us by those we interviewed.
TeachAIDS is a nonprofit that creates educational materials designed to teach people around the world about HIV and AIDS. Founded in 2005 in the U.S.
Revenue model: sponsorships
Interview date: March 24, 2016
Interviewees: Piya Sorcar, the CEO, and Shuman Ghosemajumder, the chair
Profile written by Sarah Hinchliff Pearson
TeachAIDS is an unconventional media company with a conventional revenue model. Like most media companies, they are subsidized by advertising. Corporations pay to have their logos appear on the educational materials TeachAIDS distributes.
But unlike most media companies, Teach-AIDS is a nonprofit organization with a purely social mission. TeachAIDS is dedicated to educating the global population about HIV and AIDS, particularly in parts of the world where education efforts have been historically unsuccessful. Their educational content is conveyed through interactive software, using methods based on the latest research about how people learn. TeachAIDS serves content in more than eighty countries around the world. In each instance, the content is translated to the local language and adjusted to conform to local norms and customs. All content is free and made available under a Creative Commons license.
TeachAIDS is a labor of love for founder and CEO Piya Sorcar, who earns a salary of one dollar per year from the nonprofit. The project grew out of research she was doing while pursuing her doctorate at Stanford University. She was reading reports about India, noting it would be the next hot zone of people living with HIV. Despite international and national entities pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars on HIV-prevention efforts, the reports showed knowledge levels were still low. People were unaware of whether the virus could be transmitted through coughing and sneezing, for instance. Supported by an interdisciplinary team of experts at Stanford, Piya conducted similar studies, which corroborated the previous research. They found that the primary cause of the limited understanding was that HIV, and issues relating to it, were often considered too taboo to discuss comprehensively. The other major problem was that most of the education on this topic was being taught through television advertising, billboards, and other mass-media campaigns, which meant people were only receiving bits and pieces of information.
In late 2005, Piya and her team used research-based design to create new educational materials and worked with local partners in India to help distribute them. As soon as the animated software was posted online, Piya’s team started receiving requests from individuals and governments who were interested in bringing this model to more countries. “We realized fairly quickly that educating large populations about a topic that was considered taboo would be challenging. We began by identifying optimal local partners and worked toward creating an effective, culturally appropriate education,” Piya said.
Very shortly after the initial release, Piya’s team decided to spin the endeavor into an independent nonprofit out of Stanford University. They also decided to use Creative Commons licenses on the materials.
Given their educational mission, TeachAIDS had an obvious interest in seeing the materials as widely shared as possible. But they also needed to preserve the integrity of the medical information in the content. They chose the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license (CC BY-NC-ND), which essentially gives the public the right to distribute only verbatim copies of the content, and for noncommercial purposes. “We wanted attribution for TeachAIDS, and we couldn’t stand by derivatives without vetting them,” the cofounder and chair Shuman Ghosemajumder said. “It was almost a no-brainer to go with a CC license because it was a plug-and-play solution to this exact problem. It has allowed us to scale our materials safely and quickly worldwide while preserving our content and protecting us at the same time.”
Choosing a license that does not allow adaptation of the content was an outgrowth of the careful precision with which TeachAIDS crafts their content. The organization invests heavily in research and testing to determine the best method of conveying the information. “Creating high-quality content is what matters most to us,” Piya said. “Research drives everything we do.”
One important finding was that people accept the message best when it comes from familiar voices they trust and admire. To achieve this, TeachAIDS researches cultural icons that would best resonate with their target audiences and recruits them to donate their likenesses and voices for use in the animated software. The celebrities involved vary for each localized version of the materials.
Localization is probably the single-most important aspect of the way TeachAIDS creates its content. While each regional version builds from the same core scientific materials, they pour a lot of resources into customizing the content for a particular population. Because they use a CC license that does not allow the public to adapt the content, TeachAIDS retains careful control over the localization process. The content is translated into the local language, but there are also changes in substance and format to reflect cultural differences. This process results in minor changes, like choosing different idioms based on the local language, and significant changes, like creating gendered versions for places where people are more likely to accept information from someone of the same gender.
The localization process relies heavily on volunteers. Their volunteer base is deeply committed to the cause, and the organization has had better luck controlling the quality of the materials when they tap volunteers instead of using paid translators. For quality control, TeachAIDS has three separate volunteer teams translate the materials from English to the local language and customize the content based on local customs and norms. Those three versions are then analyzed and combined into a single master translation. TeachAIDS has additional teams of volunteers then translate that version back into English to see how well it lines up with the original materials. They repeat this process until they reach a translated version that meets their standards. For the Tibetan version, they went through this cycle eleven times.
TeachAIDS employs full-time employees, contractors, and volunteers, all in different capacities and organizational configurations. They are careful to use people from diverse backgrounds to create the materials, including teachers, students, and doctors, as well as individuals experienced in working in the NGO space. This diversity and breadth of knowledge help ensure their materials resonate with people from all walks of life. Additionally, TeachAIDS works closely with film writers and directors to help keep the concepts entertaining and easy to understand. The inclusive, but highly controlled, creative process is undertaken entirely by people who are specifically brought on to help with a particular project, rather than ongoing staff. The final product they create is designed to require zero training for people to implement in practice. “In our research, we found we can’t depend on people passing on the information correctly, even if they have the best of intentions,” Piya said. “We need materials where you can push play and they will work.”
Piya’s team was able to produce all of these versions over several years with a head count that never exceeded eight full-time employees. The organization is able to reduce costs by relying heavily on volunteers and in-kind donations. Nevertheless, the nonprofit needed a sustainable revenue model to subsidize content creation and physical distribution of the materials. Charging even a low price was simply not an option. “Educators from various nonprofits around the world were just creating their own materials using whatever they could find for free online,” Shuman said. “The only way to persuade them to use our highly effective model was to make it completely free.”
Like many content creators offering their work for free, they settled on advertising as a funding model. But they were extremely careful not to let the advertising compromise their credibility or undermine the heavy investment they put into creating quality content. Sponsors of the content have no ability to influence the substance of the content, and they cannot even create advertising content. Sponsors only get the right to have their logo appear before and after the educational content. All of the content remains branded as TeachAIDS.
TeachAIDS is careful not to seek funding to cover the costs of a specific project. Instead, sponsorships are structured as unrestricted donations to the nonprofit. This gives the nonprofit more stability, but even more importantly, it enables them to subsidize projects being localized for an area with no sponsors. “If we just created versions based on where we could get sponsorships, we would only have materials for wealthier countries,” Shuman said.
As of 2016, TeachAIDS has dozens of sponsors. “When we go into a new country, various companies hear about us and reach out to us,” Piya said. “We don’t have to do much to find or attract them.” They believe the sponsorships are easy to sell because they offer so much value to sponsors. TeachAIDS sponsorships give corporations the chance to reach new eyeballs with their brand, but at a much lower cost than other advertising channels. The audience for TeachAIDS content also tends to skew young, which is often a desirable demographic for brands. Unlike traditional advertising, the content is not time-sensitive, so an investment in a sponsorship can benefit a brand for many years to come.
Importantly, the value to corporate sponsors goes beyond commercial considerations. As a nonprofit with a clearly articulated social mission, corporate sponsorships are donations to a cause. “This is something companies can be proud of internally,” Shuman said. Some companies have even built publicity campaigns around the fact that they have sponsored these initiatives.
The core mission of TeachAIDS — ensuring global access to life-saving education — is at the root of everything the organization does. It underpins the work; it motivates the funders. The CC license on the materials they create furthers that mission, allowing them to safely and quickly scale their materials worldwide. “The Creative Commons license has been a game changer for TeachAIDS,” Piya said.