Open, philanthropy and a theory of change

February 28, 2008 § 4 Comments

A number of people have been asking me lately: what happened with the open philanthropy work that you posted about last September?

In addition to lots of fruitful little experiments (more on these later), my main work on the open philanthropy front has been on the Shuttleworth Foundation theory of change. In our own words, the purpose of this exercise is to ‘explain what we do, simply’. While we may not have hit that mark yet, we have definitely forced ourselves to start digging into what we mean by open philanthropy. The current draft looks like this:

One of the first questions we stumbled across as we worked on this picture was ‘what does an open philanthropy way of working look like?’ We brainstormed a ton on this. Some of the ideas we came up with simply described our values as a team (e.g. integrity and irreverence). However, we also unearthed a few things that feel like the essence of the open philanthropy practice we’re currently inventing. While the list is still likely to evolve, these include:

  1. Open source everything. Everything that the Foundation creates, funds or helps with should be open sourced. This means: under an open license; available in an open format; and accessible from a public web site, always.
  2. Share. Leverage. Share again. Open source is not just about giving (share), it’s also about receiving (leverage). You don’t need to look far in the software world to see this. Something like Ubuntu rests on the shoulders (and code) of giants who have shared tremendously. However, it only succeeds by leveraging these existing assets to create even more value, and then giving it back again. It’s this leverage and share again process to moves things ahead. The Foundation can use this same share|leverage|share cycle to drive collaborative social innovation and radical improvement in areas like education.
  3. Community as part of everything. Despite the rhetoric, most philanthropy and social investment happens in silos. The result is zero leverage, poor use of resources and slow progress. The Foundation needs to get down and dirty with communities working on education, innovation and access each step of the way. This means constantly looking at who’s doing similar work, inviting them to our parties, and going to theirs. It also means befriending the enemies of those working against us. The open source world has lots to teach us about this. So does Gramsci.
  4. Radical transparency. A core piece of ‘open‘ — open source, open events, open societies, open systems
    — is being able to see what’s under the hood. When you can see inside
    something, you can understand it, interface with it, hack it or rip it
    off altogether. If something is closed, you can’t. Radical transparency
    means opening up not only your yearly books (we need to do this
    anyways), but also openly sharing your planning, learning and
    relationships as you go along. This doesn’t have to be hard: just take
    the password off the wiki and podcast your events. By the doing things
    like this, the Foundation is likely to have partners who come with
    better ideas (interface), offer improvements (hack) and even run with
    things on their own (rip it off). That’s what we want.
  5. Listen, learn, evolve: constantly. The Cluetrain Manifesto taught us that markets are conversations. It’s strange to me that so few activists have learned that the same is true of social change. Open philanthropy must include constant engagement and conversation with partners, activists, policymakers and (god forbid) customers. Knowing what these people think in real time with 80% accuracy (using cluetrain-style market research) is way better than finding out with 99% accuracy five years too late (using the rigorous and expensive evaluation processes that foundations love). This is especially true if people think what you are doing sucks, as you’ve still got time to fix it. The Foundation needs to get involved in this kind of listening in a very systematic way, and then to use what it is hearing and learning to steer the ship.

In the Shuttleworth team, we already embrace some of these things in our daily practice, even if we do so far from perfectly. Everything we do and fund is under an open license. Initiatives like Siyavula and the Cape Town Open Education Declaration have community at their heart. And, we do listen, learn and evolve faster than any other foundation I have worked with. Open is deep in the DNA of the Shuttleworth Foundation, the team and most of our partners.

The thing is, embracing with these ideas isn’t the same as succeeding with them. We’re still a long way from having a break away hit with open sourced education. In fact, we’re just starting (after four years of trying) to become more systematic about open licensing and archiving the things produced by the Foundation and its partners. And, we’re still a ways off from a systematic approach to learning and transparency. The Foundation — and this infant idea of open philanthropy — are works in progress. We know that. It’s part of the fun.

The theory of change discussion also forced us to look at our assumptions about how ideas move and how innovation happens. These ideas are even more in flux that the ones above, and will be subject to further discussion. In any case, some things that seem true so far include:

  • Only some ideas will get traction. Our core, day to day work is investing in people and ideas that drive innovation in education, telecom and intellectual property. Our hope is that this work bubbles up some good ideas, and that the people behind these ideas will run with them. However, we know that only some of these ideas will get traction. That’s okay. These are the ones we want to back, and that the open philanthropy approach can accelerate and improve.
  • Good ideas need to become real products, services and policies. Transitioning from a good idea to something people use everyday is hard work. The Foundation and the open philanthropy process need to be focused on putting this hard work into ideas that are viable. This includes making sure ideas are well packaged and productized (even policy ideas need to be ‘easy to use’), building communities and (social) markets around them and thinking deeply about their long term viability and sustainability out in the wild. It’s only with hard work in these areas — and then some degree of good fortune — that the ideas we back ideas will start to have the kind education, innovation and access to knowledge impact that we are seeking. 
  • If we’re lucky, some ideas will go viral. The ideas that really scale — at least in the short term — will do so because they go viral. This is the real potential of open philanthropy. With open sourced ideas and strong communities, the conditions are right for going viral. But, scaling an idea this way also involves a tremendous amount of luck and serendipity. It also involves listening and being willing to jump when the opportunity arises. This is something we’ll need to train ourselves to do.

This is still early theorizing. However, it feels like the core principles here have some merit: filter for ideas with traction; be rigorous about packaging and promoting ideas with promise; and jump on opportunities to spread and go viral. By doing these things, we’re hoping that we can catalyze enduring changes to policy, practice and culture eventually nurture an open knowledge society (I guess we’d better define that one soon, but not in this post). It’ll be interesting to see what works, and even more interesting to evolve our thinking along the way.

Anyways, that’s a quick answer to those who asked what’s up on the open philanthropy front. Fun stuff. More soon.

PS. The PDF version of the digram above is here.

§ 4 Responses to Open, philanthropy and a theory of change

  • Chad Lubelsky says:

    Thanks for the post Mark. You have a great knack for unpacking complex ideas into easy to understand nuggets. I read your post a couple of times and it’s helping me think through some challenges at work and also recognize what we do well. At some point it would be great to read about what assumptions you’ve had debunked and where you’ve faced greatest opposition. I notice that there is no direct reference to power in your post and I can’t help but think that power dynamics must – not always positively – impact the relationships and networks that seem to be at the heart of your model. Eitherway, I look forward to talking about it with you and to hearing more about the fruitful little experiments!

  • Mark Surman says:

    Good point, Chad. Part of the idea here is overcoming the traditional (pathological) power dynamic between people who give grants and people who receive them. One piece of our approach is to do more and more things where we play as a peer who is in the game, and not a funder who is outside it. Our issue specific fellows — like Andrew Rens who has been active in the OOXML debate in South Africa — help with this. However, we still need to go much farther to figure out ways for people to see us as partner and not a funder. This is key to shifting the power game, and not easy. I’ll definitely dig deeper on this as I write more on these ideas.

  • Chad Lubelsky says:

    I agree but I also think partner and funder don’t have to be mutually exclusive (which I think is what you’re saying). In my experience part of this is creating reciprocal relationships that manage to maintain roles but blur other lines so that funder and fundee are participating as equals. I just received an email from a student I work with who writes that: [the org] “both transforms those it serves and transforms with those it serves”. In thinking about open philanthropy and relationships this strikes me as not just beautiful phrasing, but also a model to aspire to. Perhaps part of the viral diffusion you describe as key includes the org and the network mirroring individual authentic relationships that transforms those it serves and transforms with those it serves.

  • […] online conversations since. And we’ve produced many iterations, at least one of which I have blogged about here. Not surprising. That’s how strategic planning-y things often go, especially when they are […]

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