Agile philanthropy: how our fellowships work

June 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Last month, we sat down to have another How We Work conversation at Shuttleworth Foundation. Under the microscope this time: our Fellowships Program. We’re all pretty happy with this program. So, the aim was to reflect on why it seems to be working … and to find ways to tweak and improve it.

The fellowships idea has a simple genesis: the desire to work with people on the front edge of issues like open education, knowledge and telecom in a way that is at once agile and high impact. Projects and grants sometimes work for this. However, they just as often create a situation where the Foundation is talking to the right people (smart, connected and engaged on the issues that matter to us) in the wrong way (long project negotiations trying to fit round pegs into square holes). The fellowships emerged about 18 months ago so we have a way to make bets not just on projects but also on people. 

We currently have four fellows. Andrew Rens working on access to knowledge and intellectual property. Steve Song on open telecom. Steve Vosloo on communications and analysis (aka ‘how education needs to work differently in the 21st century’). And myself with the dual hat of open philanthropy and open education. With the exception of myself, all the fellows work in our Cape Town office alongside the people who manage our grant making and in-house projects.

When Helen, Jason and the four of us fellows reflected on the program last month, some of the things we said were …

1. The ‘make bets on smart people’ works for us.

The fellowships are based on the ‘make bets on smart people and let them run’ model. This approach has bought the Foundation two things: agility (we can move quickly on ideas and issues) and intellectual momentum (I can’t think of a better term … but basically we are moving as a group on the issues that matter to us). Also, we’ve created a brainstormy hothouse in the office, with ideas bouncing about constantly. This not only has the fellows fueling each other but also feeds projects like Siyavula and Kusasa and the organization as a whole.

2. We’re starting to get traction on issues that matter …

While it’s still early days, we’re starting to get traction on specific work led by the fellows. Steve Song has gathered people around the beautifully disruptive idea of the village telco. Andrew has helped South Africa drive the openness agenda in the OOXML / ISO discussions. Steve Vosloo is helping to shape the conversation on mother tongue instruction, which is a critical issue in the future of South African education. I helped a group of open education pioneers birth the Cape Town Declaration. These are small scale results, for sure. But are concrete and, more importantly, they represent the kind of things we want to see happening in the world. 

3. … but follow through is sometimes tough.

On the flip side, we haven’t always had perfect follow through on this early traction. If I just look at the Cape Town Declaration, we could have done more to quickly seize the momentum we built with the Declaration launch in January. This could have been fixed in part by me blogging, engaging and pushing more post launch. The fellowships are all about this kind of ‘just roll up your sleeves’ action. However, our not perfect Cape Town follow through is also related to the fact that we’ve tried to organize some of our next step activities using grants (watch soon for Open Education News) … which is a slower way to get things rolling. We need to think about how we elegantly combine grants and fellowship energy in the future. We have an opportunity to move further faster combining these things, but we aren’t there yet.

4. Getting the word out is even tougher.

We’ve also had a tough time sharing and communicating the ideas emerging from the fellows. All of the fellows are blogging, some in high profile places. This is good. There is a blog aggregator. Which is also helpful, although it’s not clear who follows it. What’s needed now is a better web site that pushes people to this material more aggressively. MOre importantly, we need a better strategy for getting people engaged: more thoughtful links between our e-mail newsletter and our most compelling posts; blogging about other people’s work, especially the Foundation’s partners; getting other bloggers to link to what we’re writing. Small, simple stuff. We need to do it.

5. Paper, podiums and parties are great … but needs discipline.

The tongue-in-cheek mandate for the fellows program is ‘papers, podiums and parties’. Papers = writing and blogging to push thought leadership. Podiums = speaking and evangelizing. Parties = running events and building networks. Tongue-in-cheek or not, this trio actually serves well as a way to check whether we’re working on the right things. A quick reflection at the meeting showed that most of us are doing well in one or two areas, but not necessarily in all. Eg. Steve Vosloo’s work on mother tongue has a great paper and he’s spoken on podiums … but we need to follow through with some sort of symposium on the topic (a party). We need to be a bit more disciplined about tracking what we are doing in these areas and filling in the gaps.

The bullets above are a gut reflection on the meeting MP3 and my notes, which I just went over last week. I will write a more formal How We Work article on fellowships sometime in July. If you have questions or would like me to dig deeper on any particular points, please post comments here.

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