The brutal economic downturn has claimed new victims at the One Laptop Per Child Foundation of Cambridge, which distributes free laptops to poor children around the world.
The foundation has cut its 64-member workforce in half, and cut the pay of those who remain.
"The economic downturn hit us like everybody else," said founder Nicholas Negroponte, who noted that corporate donations to the foundation had fallen from about $8 million in 2007 to about $4 million last year. Worse was a huge decline in revenue from the foundation's Give One Get One program, which encourages Americans to purchase two of the laptops during the Christmas season and donate one to a poor child.
(In an AP file photo at right, Negroponte shows off an early version of the foundation's laptop.)
Give One Get One had a small advertising budget when it was launched in 2007, and distribution problems caused many purchasers to wait months before receiving their laptops. Still, it sold 185,000 laptops and generated $37 million in revenue, and the foundation was expecting to see growth in 2008. Media companies donated between $12 million and $15 million in free advertising, including TV, print and billboard ads. The giant Internet retailer Amazon.com signed up to handle distribution of the laptops, ensuring that orders would quickly be filled.
Yet none of this could offset the impact of the current recession. This year's Give One Get One program generated a mere $2.5 million--a 93 percent decline from the previous year. "That was a real shocker," said Negroponte, adding that it's forced the foundation to slice its $12 million annual budget. "We will reduce ourselves to running at closer to $5 million," he said.
Negroponte first announced the cuts in an Internet blog posting on Wednesday. He described the moves as a "restructuring" that would refocus the foundation on distributing its proprietary, no-frills laptops in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and on creating a new, second-generation computer. "We're going to keep going and we're going to expand," he said.
Walter Bender, who oversaw software development at OLPC until his resignation last May, backed Negroponte's plan to improve distribution of the laptops. "To me that's a perfectly appropriate focus," Bender said. So far, about half a million of the laptops have been distributed in such countries as Uruguay, Peru, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, but that's far fewer than the millions Negroponte has in mind.
(By Hiawatha Bray, Globe staff)