Shuttleworth Foundation ‘how we work’ club

January 24, 2008 Comments Off on Shuttleworth Foundation ‘how we work’ club

On this trip, I’ve started doing my open philanthropy work at the Shuttleworth Foundation. The biggest piece of this is developing the Foundation’s theory of change and an accompanying open philanthropy manifesto (will post on this soon). The other bit is developing a series of ‘how we work’ papers.

The idea with the ‘how we work’ series is to show what open philanthropy means in practice and to encourage other people to rip off / emulate our ideas. Hopefully, the writing process will also help with internal reflection and learning. Maybe we’re on to something with all this ‘open’ stuff, or maybe it’s boohucky. The only way to find out is to look closely at how we are actually working.

In the spirit of transparency and openness (open philanthropy rule #6), I am posting my notes on the ‘how we work’ series below. Please comment, criticize and suggest additional topics.

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Open philanthropy ‘under the hood’
article series

Series of papers that explain how we
work and why. The series both gives us a chance to reflect on our
practices (lunch time chats) and share open philanthropy practices
we’re proud of with others (the papers).


While this is an opt-in activity,
everyone in the Foundation is invited to get involved. Some people
will write these short articles. Others will simply participate in
bookclubesque chats where we reflect on the topic to be covered in an
upcoming article.


Series of 10 – 12 papers on how we do
things. Each paper is written by a staff member or a fellow based on
a team wide lunch time discussion on the topic at hand.

The papers should be lightweight,
practical and easy to read. The target length is 2 – 3 pages. At this
stage, we’re assuming each article will cover five questions:

  • what we do (describe the practice)
  • why do it (connects to open
    philanthropy idea)
  • what’s working
  • what’s hard / broken / ineffective
  • steal this idea (step by step / tips
    / example materials)

Possible topics for the series include:

  • Grant contracts, CC licensing and
    keeping stuff ‘free’ ”(Mark w/Karen)”
  • How our fellowship program works, and
    why ”(Jason and Karien)”
  • Theory of Change, what is and how we
    built it ”(Mark S)”
  • Book club: being serious can be fun
  • Cape Town Declaration as network
    building ”(Mark S)”
  • Freedom Toaster as spin off example,
    warts and all ”(??)”
  • Wikifying your foundation ”(??)”
  • Blogging your foundation inside out
  • Using and promoting open document

Mark Surman will start with
the ‘CC licensing topic’ in February. More topics will probably make
themselves evident as we go along.


One of the open philanthropy principles in our Theory of Change is: listen, learn and evolve, constantly. That’s why we are doing this. Specific goals include:

  • reflect on how we work (lunch chats)
  • use reflection to become more nimble,
    open and effective (better practices)
  • document how we work so others will
    emulate (papers + podiums)
  • spark a conversation on ‘open’ with
    other foundations (parties)
  • get feedback and ideas from other
    foundations to help
    us improve
    (better practices)

There is also a piece in here about ‘share, leverage and share again’ which is another of the principles in our theory of change.


The papers would be released monthly,
probably with some sort of fanfare. We could also do a brief seminar
on each paper. This could in turn be podcast.

PS. Full disclosure: anything thing that prompted the ‘put this stuff up totally openly on my blog’ approach is that I can’t access either of the Foundation wikis right now. However, ‘as public as possible’ is probably the right attitude here, so I think I’ll keep posting stuff like this here.

Creative (and open?) philanthropy

January 14, 2008 Comments Off on Creative (and open?) philanthropy

Over the holidays, Tonya, the boys and I felt a huge debt of gratitude to Helen Carmichael and John Dash who let us use their house while they rode the rails in Wales. This gratitude was in part for the warm and beautiful nest from which we could explore Hackney (loved it soooo much) and enjoy a London Christmas (truly as romantic as it sounds). But we also felt grateful for the ideas and inspiration that inspiration that Helen and John shared through their wonderful collection of books.


Especially notable was Creative Philanthropy (PDF summary) by Helmut Anheier and Diana Leat, which Helen had very kindly left on the bedside table (on purpose, I’m guessing). Released in 2006, this book hit directly on many of the things I’ve been scratching at as I talk about open philanthropy:

  • Most foundations (and even government grant making programs) are stuck in limiting, old fashioned ideas about charity and engineering solutions to social problems.
  • Foundations should be focused more on big picture social change, using their independence to take risks, try new things and shift thinking.
  • Big picture social change requires a focus on innovation, a commitment the spreading good ideas widely and a comfort with complexity.

At some level, much of this is obvious. Yet, there are very few foundations that focus on the kinds of innovation needed for big picture social change … and waaaaaaaay fewer who have transformed their day to day business practices to focus on openness and creativity (or whatever other words you want to use). It’s this focus on this transformation of practice that makes Creative Philanthropy so valuable, and that is at the core of the work I’m doing at the Shuttleworth Foundation.

It’s is always a great gift to find kindred spirits. I feel like I’ve stumbled across a number with Helen, John and the authors of this book. I will definitely look them up when I am through London next. Hopefully, there is a vibrant conversation about creative philanthropy going on that I have yet to discover. My intuition says there is.

Reconsidering ‘open’

October 4, 2007 § 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking alot about the broader meaning of ‘open’. I’ve spent years working on and advocating for open source. I love running meetings using open space. I now work on open education. One of my job titles says I am all about open philanthropy. I organized an event about open cities. What’s up with this? What is the connection? Is ‘open’ something bigger, something that has broad importance for our world?


As many of you know, my intuition says: yes, all the ‘open’ we’ve been playing with points quietly, albeit circuitously, to the future we want.

For the first time, I tried to tease out this intuition as a keynote to 250 amazing young people at the annual Millennium Scholars Think Again! conference. The general argument was something like: the principles of ‘open’ that we’re familiar with from Wikipedia, Linux and even Facebook can — and will — help us reconfigure the worlds of work, education, government, philanthropy and social change for the better. For the purpose of illustration, I zoomed in on the impact of Internet-enabled mass collaborative and participatory media are having on how we work, think and consume. I stole alot from Benkler (with credit).

The presentation: I started with a ‘who reads books vs. who uses Facebook’ quiz for the audience; did a quick tour of the collapsing industrial information economy; introduced the Scholars to some important thought leaders of ‘open’ (Linus, Lessig, Jimmy Wales, Stallman); made the jump to open education as an example of a mainstream non-software domain built on the principles as the Internet and open source software; and ended with a link to Paul Hawken and the idea of a massively connected social movement that is acting as humanity’s immune system. Phew. Slides are here on SlideShare.

The learning: a few of the Scholars thought that I was just talking about technology as our salvation. Of course, this is not the point. We can learn from the last 20 or 30 years of open technology, but this is really about seeing how the principles of ‘open’ work in a massive, connected, real world environment. The real opportunity is in taking these principles and applying them to all sorts of other parts of life. And, of course, the generation I was talking to is best suited to do this. Fluid, silo-less, chaotic, horizontal, p2p ways of doing things are second nature to them. If all goes well, we just need to encourage them take the way they already play and bring it into places of work, study and governance. 

Anyways, it was helpful to learn that I was coming across as too techie, and to remember that my natural inclination is to lean this way. Jane Rabinowicz from Santropol Roulant (also attending this event) was an amazing sounding board on this issue, suggesting that future talks should put equal weight on how people are using ‘open’ in things like meeting faciliation, organizational design and movement building. Of course, these are areas that I also play with, much more so than I play with software. So, it’s easy for me to talk about these things, and to give examples the work I’ve been doing in the past few years (see: open education track at the iSummit). I just need to stop taking these examples for granted, and loop them into my spiel.

Riffing off this insight (thanks, Jane!), I am going to do a bit of a formal comparison of the values and rules that connect all of the kinds of ‘open’ that I play with. Who knows where this goes, but I suspect there are some patterns in it all. I will post here an let you know.

What is open philanthropy?

September 17, 2007 § 5 Comments

Driving to Stellenbosch yesterday, Darius asked me: "In a nutshell, what do you mean when you say open philanthropy?" It was a good question. The words ‘open’ and ‘philanthropy’ have been tumbling out of my mouth side-by-side for over a year now. Yet, they’ve always expressed an intuition, and not a clearly honed concept. Nothing like an explain-this-quickly-in-the-car gauntlet to help with clarity.

My initial shot at a one liner for Darius was: "like the Cluetrain Manifesto, but for philanthropy and social change." While this wasn’t quite right, it had a kernel of right-ness. Cluetrain is about the need for corporations to be transparent, network-centric and engaged with customers in a very honest and human way. It’s also about the emergent opportunities, quick feedback loops and ability to gauge needs and demands in real time that come with this kind of social connectivity. Philanthropy and development need more of these things, to be sure.

The other link is around the nature of corporations (and philanthropic orgs) with industrial era management cultures. These organizations thrive on thick planning documents (or funding proposals) that try to predict the future, locking everyone involved in a forced march towards a rigid goal. They have impermeable boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, eschewing the kinds of fuzzy edges make it possible to hook into broader economic and social ecosystems. And, of course, they rely heavily on control-based management (supervision, deliverables, audits) rather than enablement (coaching, outcomes, learning).

In Cluetrain, industrial-brained companies are at best ineffective, and more likely doomed. The problem is, philanthropic organizations and development funders, without the watching eyes of the market, can be ineffective for a very long time without ever being doomed. And, ineffective they are. One need not be an expert in philanthropy to know that large numbers of grants contribute little or nothing to the social outcomes they are meant to catalyze. In most parts of the world, the response has been to lock down grantmaking even more, adding more planning, more supervision, more rigid evaluation. At the same time, the most creative and interesting social change organizations of our time are becoming more amorphous, more network-like and more informal (read Paul Hawken‘s Blessed Unrest for useful insights on this). The result is that a great deal of grantmaking is not only ineffective in itself, but also that it rarely connects with the people and organizations that have the most potential to make our world a better place.

The point of open philanthropy is to reconnect social investment and social change. It’s something that many people are intuitively poking at, but that we are not yet having a conversation about. In small ways, you see it in: IDRCs attempt to replace ‘evaluation’ with ‘outcome mapping‘; Skoll and Omidyar‘s efforts to create online communities around their philanthropy (or whatever they call it); and, the Metcalf Foundation‘s efforts to use networks as a way to surface ideas and define collective strategy. All of this comes from an intuition, an itch. There is some sense that words like open and philanthropy might mean something together, even if we haven’t said it yet.

With the Shuttleworth Foundation generously offering me the title of Open Philanthropy Fellow, I guess one of my jobs is to take a crack at some of this saying. The best place to start for me is with a doodle. I just did this one on the plane:


Building on the notes above, the idea is pretty simple. Most philanthropy is disconnected from creative social change. We need to respond with an open philanthropy approach that backs inventive social change agents. And, extrapolating from experience and intuition, the three strategies to try out are: openness and transparency; network-centric-ness; and emergence and leverage. Let me quickly dig into these strategies.

The idea of ‘open and transparent’ is the most obvious. Make sure everything you do and fund is open licensed (the Shuttleworth Foundation does this). Use blogs for the majority of grantee and program officer reporting, cutting back on internal reports that no one outside the organization ever sees (tried this with, to mixed effect). Use wikis for planning and documentation (lots of people doing this). The point here is not only to put outputs of your efforts into the commons, but also to create a real time narrative that people can engage with and learn from. This is harder than it sounds.

Being network-centric is the next step. This isn’t just about funding networks, which many funders have done, often to poor effect. In fact, it’s most importantly about being ‘in the game’ as a part the natural networks that you work with, and getting out of the habit of acting like an outside voice giving directions or making judgments. Anyone in the social change game will be familiar with the vibe of funders standing at the back of the room or outside the circle of conversation. A network-centric approach starts with not doing this (very Cluetrain-ish) kind of thing. It then extends to listening to the ideas and energy flows in the networks and movements where you want to a difference. And, once you’re good at this, it should also include monitoring the quality of connectedness, and doing things (paying for plan tickets, supporting meetings, making introductions) where necessary to strengthen the mesh within the network. In the end, much of this boils down to being a good friend and peer with the change agents you are working with. This is the main idea we’ve being testing with It has worked in some ways, and not in others.

The third strategy is around emergence and leverage. Part of this is about listening for good ideas and watching for strong leaders, backing them with very small amounts of support, and then seeing what happens. As they succeed in small ways, you back them more. And so on. The other part is looking across the ecosystem for gaps, and filling them (as opposed to trying to make your own big, siloed splash in a particular area). While these are in some ways separate ideas, they really do make up one strategy. They are about the way you actually make your social investments (or grants) by listening rather than planning. This is probably the toughest thing to do well, both because we’re addicted to big ideas with detailed plans, and because the grant administration systems that we have built up in foundations and governments make it almost impossible to be nimble, responsive and iterative. My guess is that it’s worth pushing these envelopes, as they are likely to yield the kinds of innovation and social change that we have so long said we are looking for.

Okay, that’s brain dump #1 on open philanthropy. It feels good to get it out. Tons of unanswered questions still hang, but that’s okay. It’s time to loop some of this back into the Shuttleworth Foundation theory of change. And, assuming I am not crazy, it’s time for you all to hack away and evolve this idea with me. I’m up for this. Are you?

Banking on social innovation

February 4, 2006 Comments Off on Banking on social innovation

San Francisco , USA

Scaling anything (e.g. telecentres) is about passion, good ideas and hard work. That’s for sure. But, like it or not, it’s also about money. Not just having it, but also structuring it in the right way. This was the main topic for the ‘innovative funding practices’ panel at the Innovation Funders event.


As Lee Davis from NESsT pointed out, the financing options available to non-profits and social enterprises are both slim and rigid. The commercial world has access to a diversity of financing tools: venture funding for risky yet promising start-ups, equity to bring in cash for scaling, debt to handle cash flow, and so on. Most social enterprises, non-profit or for-profit, just have access to grants (unless they’re so big that commercial banks trust them). One financial instrument, but clearly a diversity of needs.

This is surely a problem we face in the telecentre space. Whether it has come from governments, donor agencies or corporate philanthropists, almost all of the money in telecentres has come in the form of grants. This is good for some things: building out purely pre-market infrastructure; developing foundational materials and services; creating a sense of movement. However grants actually can’t be the whole picture if we are truly interested in scaling the number of telecentres and creating a rich palette of well packaged, replicable services to offer through telecentres. You see this especially when you look at microfranchise networks like Drishtee, TaraHaat and Nlogue, with great ideas but the need for resources that take things to the next level.


The (many) million dollar question: what does diverse financing in the telecentre space look like? Certainly, one thing we need is a small, nimble mechanism to finance service research and development. It’s pretty likely we can create this within In addition, there is probably a need for microcredit plus (larger than a phone loan), patient debt or low return equity aimed at scaling. One day, commercial financing might play a role, too. But that’s a long way off.

Interesting and important stuff, and something I’ve been background processing for a while. I am grateful to Lee and others at the Innovation Funders event for helping me to dig a bit deeper.

Philanthropy with fuzzy edges

February 4, 2006 Comments Off on Philanthropy with fuzzy edges

San Francisco, USA

A non-speedgeek highlight from the Innovation Funders event: listening to Howard Rheingold wax prophetic on exactly the kind of questions I’ve been ruminating on for our business plan. What is network-centric social investment? How do you blend networks, emergence and cooperative strategies into the practice of philanthropy and social investment?


Giving a glimpse of a paper he’s writing for the Council on Foundations, he said: “We need to be thinking about something beyond programs and projects. We need to be thinking about something with permeable boundaries and smarts at the edges.” We do, and we are.

Everyone loves a speedgeek!

February 3, 2006 Comments Off on Everyone loves a speedgeek!

San Francisco, USA

I came to San Francisco for the Innovation Funders Network Summit, a gathering of foundations, philanthropists and development agencies with an innovation itch to scratch.

As seems to be the pattern with any meeting facilitated by Allen Gunn, the speedgeek was amongst the highlights. Three speedgeekers stood out for me:


The folks from Youth Radio, a media access centre in Oakland. The fact that they provide a public space for young people to gain media skills is interesting enough in its own right. But, the icing on the cake, is that they’re trying to do it as a social enterprise. The young people sell clips to NPR, podcast like mad through iTunes and offer media production services. A very interesting model for telecentres elsewhere to look at.


Holly Ladd from Satellife. Holly is part of the IDRC-funded team mashing up infrared, cheap PDAs and low bandwidth GSM data to automate health information flow in rural Uganda. I’ve heard the Uganda Health Information Network story second hand in the past. However, having a health-info-packed PDA in hand brought to life for me (and 100 other people at the event).


Peter Bladin, from Grameen Tech Centre. Grameen continues to blow me away with their smart ideas about how ideas travel and scale. As blogged last month, their village phone replication program includes a detailed ‘how to rip off this business model’ guide based on their successful initiative in Uganda. Their Microfinance Open Source (MiFOS) software platform, which will offer a complete backend for running a microfinance bank, is based squarely on the idea that the best way to digital-ize the microfinance industry is to give away the store (the software itself) and then build a business ecology around it (consultants and other orgs evolving the software).

Fun stuff!

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