Practising my open philanthropy rap

May 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

During my recent trip to Cape Town, the Foundation held a 'messaging meeting'. This is basically a communications group therapy session. Everyone has two or three minutes to deliver a pitch on their work and projects. After watching a video playback of each pitch, the group offers constructive criticism.

If you want to hear my current open philanthropy rap (or just want to see me make a fool of myself) take a look at this video from the meeting:

The 'get better at your pitch' benefits of this exercise are obvious … and doing a session like this every few months is worthwhile for this reason alone.

However, there was a bigger and somewhat surprising benefit: team building. People learned about each other's projects in a way that they would never have time for during the normally flurry of a workday. They also had a chance to provide informal, rapid-fire input on both the positioning and substance of the work we are doing as a Foundation. And, fueled by the nervous gawkiness of any public speaking rehearsal, all of this was rolled up inside a good dose of humour and love. It was quite amazing. I hope I get to do it again.

Building a hothouse

May 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Last week, I had a rare 45 mins with
Mark Shuttleworth. He asked: what do you think the Foundation has
achieved in the last year? I answered that it had 'stabilized and
grown strong'. Which is true. After a few rocky years, the Foundation
is now in a position to actually pursue big ideas like free textbooks
and learning analytical skills p2p-style in a serious way. Yet, I
knew my answer wasn't quite right. The Foundation hasn't just stabilized, its, well, this sounds silly, but …


… it's turned into a hothouse of
ideas, invention and activism. The hothouse image came up as we were
brainstorming new metaphors for the theory of change. At first, I
wrote this one off. But, reflecting on two weeks at the Foundation's
Cape Town office, the hothouse image has stuck with me. It feels like
that is exactly what we have built.

Amidst the clatter of the open plan
office, sparky ideas constantly bounce off the walls. Over the course
of just a few hours the other day: Andrew and Sam were debating the
merits (or lack thereof) of the OLPC / Microsoft deal. Steve(2) and I
were comparing South Africa's mother tongue education policies with
the last 30 years of French immersion in Canada; and all of us were
trying to figure out why the Lego mashup of Eddie Izzard's Death Star
is so good (which is actually very important if the projects
you're building hinge on contribution and creativity). The Foundation
has truly become fertile ground for the exchange and evolution of

Of course, fertilizer on its own is
just crap. Thankfully, the Foundation also has some promising seeds
in the ground. Mark's Siyavula free textbook project has not borne
fruit yet, but it's definitely taken root. He is now grappling with
concrete issues like setting up an online repository, putting 1000s
pages of existing content online and recruiting community leaders and
volunteers to make this content better. Sam is at a similar spot with
Kusasa, working through the practicalities of testing grade four
peer-to-peer learning content in seven schools. And, new seeds like
Steve(1)'s Village Telco are also going into the ground. Much is
growing, and it is real.

What's most hot-house-y – and what
you really only feel in the office – is the the ideas and the
action really feeding each other. The fellows don't just write
papers. The people running concrete projects don't just project
manage. They dance together. Just think: Mark (creating free
textbooks) is sitting across the room from Andrew (the intellectual
property fellow) as he works on a competition bureau complaint
related to educational publishing. The natural thing that happens is
that they help each other. This is what is going on all the time, in
subtle but quite powerful ways.

The bad news: you can't really see this
from outside, which is not very hot-house-y. Fixing this is critical.
We want people to take inspiration from (or take issue with) what we
are doing. We also want them to contribute to (or simply rip off)
what we are doing, even before our work has fully borne fruit. This
won't happen until people can pick up and even join into the office
vibe from outside. As a simple first step, we've agreed to compile
all the existing Foundation blogs
as the main feature on the front
page a of our site. Much more is in the works.

Next time someone asks me what we've
done in the last year, I'll have a better answer: we've built a
hothouse. A very good one. True, it's only produced a few tiny
victories so far (the Cape Town Declaration and South Africa's vote against OOXML at the ISO). But, after a week in Cape Town, I am quite hopeful
that it's about to produce a great deal more.

PS. While I love the hothouse metaphor, I am still not completely convinced we should use it for the updated theory of change. Comments on this highly encouraged.

Philanthropy on the commons

April 16, 2008 § 3 Comments

I spent the weekend mulling over Mike Edwards‘ essay Philanthrocapitalism: After the gold rush. The basic argument is this: there is a movement afoot to harness the power of business for social change. This includes newly-minted foundations like Gates, corporate social responsibility programs and social entrepreneurs. These philanthrocapitalists are undermining the independence and social mission of civil society. As a result, we are missing out on real social transformation, and maybe even risking our democracy.

From where I sit, much of what Edwards says seems wrong or misdirected, mixing apples with oranges with assumptions. Which is why I was so surprised to see him briefly trumpeting one of my
favourite ideas: “… new business models built around the commons, such as open source software.” Edwards suggests that these new models have the potential to deliver deep changes to both our society and our economy. I agree. In fact, I would argue that they already have.

The power of peers

Just think about Wikipedia for a second. In less than 10 years, Wikipedia has completely overturned the intellectual and economic power structure of the publishing industry (or, at least, the parts dealing with reference materials). What’s more, it has dramatically increased the number of languages that have their own encyclopedias (over 250), the number of topics covered (2.3 million in English alone) and the speed with which new topics get covered (there is even a little article on philanthrocapitalism). Like it or not, Wikipedia is unquestionably an incredible achievement.

Many would also argue that Wikipedia is a major public good, on the order of an education or library system. That’s certainly what Jimmy Wales and others had in mind when the coined the Wikimedia Foundation’s vision statement: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in
the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” The people behind Wikipedia were definitely thinking about what Edwards calls ‘real social transformation’ right from day one.

Of course, the most interesting thing about Wikipedia is not Wikipedia itself, but the method used to create and maintain it. Tens of thousands of volunteers around the world contribute and edit content on topics they are passionate about. When you add up all of these small bits of labour, you have what it takes to create the world’s most comprehensive

It’s this kind peer production that Edwards is talking about when he speaks of ‘the commons’. And, as Yochai Benkler eloquently argues in The Wealth of Networks,
this model is not limited to Wikipedia: it is a part of a new and
growing wave of non-market peer production that is creating tremendous
public assets. Linux. Mozilla Firefox. The Public Library of Science. MIT’s OpenCourseWare. The 60 million Creative Commons-licensed photos
on Flickr. We create and hold these things in common. And, as we hold
them, our economies, our societies and our democracies are

The yin yang dance

The funny thing is,
Edwards seems to think that the commons and business are at odds. “The
problem is that these approaches are absent from the philanthrocapitalist menu,” he says. The facts say otherwise. Who are
the top funders of of Wikipedia? Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite. Who funds the Creative Commons?
Sun, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Yahoo, Facebook as well as a number of
foundations created with newly minted high tech wealth. The commons is
clearly on the philanthrocapitalist menu.

More importantly:
collaborative, non-market peer production was born from a world that
lives on the fuzzy edge between public and private benefit. In his 1999
essay, the Magic Cauldron, Eric Raymond
offered a taxonomy of open source business models that still left the
code in the commons: cost-sharing; giving away things that have use
value but no sale value; selling technical support or services. His
point was this: business and the commons are not only compatible but,
in many cases, actually interdependent.

In the almost 10 years
since the Magic Cauldron, we’ve seen real world success by open source
projects mixing public and private benefit. Committed to bringing books to the blind, entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman generates revenue from online services while staying staunchly not-for-profit. Once a single foundation, Mozilla is now a foundation and two companies
as a way to consciously play across the private / public benefit divide.
And, intent on transforming the economics of software with an always
free, easy to use version of Linux, Mark Shuttleworth set up not a charity but a business.
In stark contrast to Edwards, these folks do not see public and private
benefit in a zero sum pitched battle: they see a yin yang dance. There
may be times of conflict, but it is a conflict of interdependence and,
ultimately, mutual benefit.

Open sourcing philanthropy

the end of his essay, Edwards asks what he calls the $55 trillion
question: how will we use the vast amount of new philanthropic
resources that will be created in the next 50 years? My instincts tell
me that Wikipedia, open source and peer production may hold part of the
answer. The world of the commons has used openness, participation and
community to create real and (hopefully) lasting public goods. Why not
apply these same principles to improving education, creating low cost housing or evolving our democracy?

course, using open source principles to address a wide variety of
social needs would require a new kind of foundation. In fact, it would
require a whole wave of foundations built from the ground up around the
values of openness, transparency and participation, and sitting happily on the fuzzy
edges between public and private benefit. It would require us to open source philanthropy. Possible? I think so. And, who knows, maybe some of the so-called philanthrocapitalists might even be willing to help.

An edited version of this post is part of a debate about philanthrocapitalism taking place on It’s also highlighted on Slashdot.

We are opening: free textbooks for South Africa

April 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Mark Horner launched his Siyavula blog this week! Yay! It’ll be a great way for people to track this ambitious and important open education project. For those of you who don’t know:

The objective is to make Open and Collaborative Resources (OCRs) a firm
and sustainable reality in the South African education system and, in
the process, make a massive contribution to improving the current crisis (just one short article but many exist).
We will make contributions which cover the entire curriculum, from
grades 1 through 12, for all learning areas in grades 1 through 9 and
the majority of subjects in grades 10 through 12.

What Mark fails to mention in his first post is his own experience running the Free High School Science Texts project. FHSST has successfully produced open, royalty free math and science texts for grade 10 – 12 using a collaborative, volunteer-driven approach. Given Mark’s chops, I’m convinced Siyavula will succeed.

Side note: in the Shuttleworth tradition of embedding vision and values in project names (Ubuntu), Siyavula is an  Nguni word meaning we are opening.

Open licensing, and how we work

March 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

As I blogged previously, I’m doing a series of short pieces that look under the hood at the day to day work of the Shuttleworth Foundation. As the opening blurb to my first article says:

How We Work is a series of occasional articles that take a critical look at one aspect of our open philanthropy practice. Our aim is to reflect and improve upon our efforts while also sharing what we’ve learned with others.

The first target (or ‘victim’?) of this process was the Foundation’s open licensing policy. The whole team met back in January to reflect on our policy, talk about what is working and what isn’t and to dream up ideas for how to do it all better. I’ve just finished a draft write up from this conversation, with the main points summarized in the introduction:

The Shuttleworth Foundation believes in open innovation. It is core to the society we want to build. Early on, we made a decision that what we do and fund should be under an open license. Our goal was to make it easy for people to use, adapt and improve whatever our staff and partners created. We wanted maximum viral impact, and we saw open licensing as the first step in this direction.

As it turns out, making open licensing work isn’t easy, and going viral is even tougher. In the three years since embracing open licensing, we’ve bumped up against confusion over IP ownership, partners who are not willing to share, and lawyers who don’t ‘get’ open. Also, in many cases, we’ve simply lost track of materials our partners have created. They may be open, but no one can find them. Not even us.

The good news is we’re pushing past all of this, putting in place more systematic open licensing and archiving policies. As we do this, we thought we should write down how things have gone so far and explain where we are headed in the future. Hopefully, this will help others move into open licensing more quickly and successfully in the future.

Bottom line lessons and advice for other foundations are included briefly at the end of the article:

If you do decide to ‘go open’, it’s important to take the time to be thoughtful about how it happens. Our experience suggests that there are three issues to pay particular attention to: license choice (choose a license like CC BY SA that has maximum viral impact); ownership (think about who has a stake in making ideas travel and keeping them open; and accessibility (make a clear plan for access and archiving). These are three areas we tripped up on, and that we’re now working to improve.

There is a full version of the draft on Google Docs. I’d love to get comments and feedback on this as I will be doing at least one more version before we ‘publish’ it.

Processwise, I still like the idea of the How We Work series. The face-to-face team discussion was especially good, putting us all on the same page (or close to it) in terms of open licensing. It also surfaced some internal controversy on when our partners should own IP and when we should steward it ourselves. As a result, we were able to tweak our new open licensing policy so that it meets a broader set of needs and circumstances.

I’m less than sure on the write up format. It’s good to have a formal, reflective article. The process of writing something like this deepens the thinking and even had an impact back on the follow up policy discussions. However, all the back and forth (and my own delays) made the whole process feel really felt slowwwwwwww. For the next topic (internal learning?), I may blog out loud early in the process and then come out with a more formal article a little later. I’d love comments on whether or not this mixed formal / informal writing strategy sounds useful.

Planting seeds with open content

March 3, 2008 § 2 Comments

John Moravec of Education Futures posted today on the Cape Town Declaration, worrying that open course materials will do little to change education. He asks:

Is there something else that we should focus on where we can use new technological and social models to develop innovative tools for education?

The answer is: of course! There are dozens of things that pop to mind immediately: Tools that capture, share and evolve the tacit knowledge involved in teaching practices (LAMS). Peer-to-peer learning platforms where students support each other and teachers become more like facilitators (Kusasa). Sites that connect ‘amateur’ teachers with interested learners (The School of Everything). For-credit classes that embed students in the real time, hands on learning environment of an open source software community (Seneca College). Or simply DIY learning by doing, which is the point of the web and open source in the first place (Wikipedia). While most of these are nascent examples yet to scale or even prove themselves, they hint at where things are going.

It surprises me how many people jump to the conclusion that the Cape Town Declaration ignores all this. The people who wrote the Declaration — and I suspect most people who signed it — totally get how education can and is changing. That’s why the Declaration says things like:

We have a chance to nurture a new generation of learners who engage with open educational materials, are empowered by their learning and share their new knowledge and insights with others.

… and encourages people not only to think about content but also to:

… pursue additional strategies in open educational technology, open sharing of teaching practices and other approaches that promote the broader cause of open education.

We have a huge opportunity to transform what we mean by ‘education’ in the next 25 years. This will (hopefully) include a shift to more participatory, p2p, informal, learner driven approaches education.This shift may in turn totally transform how we deal with accreditation (can I prove what I taught myself) and even the whole way we organize publicly funded education (can me and my friends set up our own school with tax dollars?). While no one agrees on exactly how this will (or should) play out, one thing is clear: it won’t happen all at once.

This is one reason the Cape Town Declaration focuses on educational content. We need a place to start. Opening up the content we use for learning, making it not only accessible but also remixable, is a super important first step. Once we’ve got the political, legal and technical seeds of a remix culture spread throughout the world of education, who knows what else we can create? I guess the idea is that we get to invent it along the way.

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.

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