I’ve written in the past about the Kamusi project, an online Swahili-English dictionary built by experts and by volunteer contributors. When I last checked in with Dr. Martin Benjamin, the project’s founder, the project had little long-term funding, but was finding a way to stay afloat with text ads and sales of a novel Swahili clock, which began counting the hours from daybreak so that one o’clock is an hour past daybreak.
Evidently, Kamusi has had a conflict with Yale, which hosted the project. According to the Kamusi website, the project “has been ordered to remove all links to the sites that the project has relied on to raise revenue for project maintenance and improvement. Without these links, the project has no income source and cannot function; the project will have a negative account balance after outstanding debts are paid.” The site goes on to say that Kamusi is seeking answers from Yale as to whether they can make money from ads or mechandise sale in the future.
I don’t know the details of the situation – I was pointed to the change to the site by Ndesanjo Macha, who is a key figure in the Swahili online community. Ndesanjo mentioned that some members of the online Swahili community have been emailing Yale, offering their hope that Kamusi will be brought back online in the near future.
As someone who helps run a university-based online project, I can imagine the challenges Dr. Benjamin is facing. The Berkman Center, where Global Voices is based, has been endlessly supportive, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to help us navigate the bureacracy of Harvard Law School. While we’ve had pretty good luck approaching foundations and corporations for support, we’ve done very little of the sort of financing Kamusi was supported by. The last time I asked whether Global Voices could raise money online through PayPal, the answer seemed to be that we could raise money for the Law School as a whole, but there would be no guarantee that the funds would come to Global Voices – we decided not to pursue this form of fundraising until we had an independent legal entity. If we begin generating revenue from text ads or from Global Voices merchandise, I can imagine similar questions arising.
The Berkman Center is in the business, in part, of incubating projects that address problems and questions in the world of the Internet, media and online social practice. Creative Commons was born in part at the Berkman Center, as were PRX.org, Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, the Center for Citizen Media and others. As a result, we’ve had to do some thinking about the ways in which a university can and can’t support these projects.
Fundraising is a tough area – young projects need to use the University’s nonprofit status to raise funds… but it’s understandable that a university would want to ensure that this fundraising mostly supports research projects and never threatens the university’s tax exempt status. But it’s hard to imagine that selling Swahili clocks would threaten Yale’s tax status, and Kamusi is certainly tightly related to any research about linguistics. I’ve got high hopes that Martin Benjamin and friends are able to bring Kamusi back online… and that this situation helps spark some dialog for every university that helps bring new non-profit projects to life.