From Traditional Funder to Today

by SF Team, 16 February 2014

The Shuttleworth Foundation was established in October 2000 with the belief that education is the key to unlocking the creative and intellectual potential of the South African youth.

Our main goal was to improve the quality of education in South Africa. We invested in projects that offered unique and innovative solutions to educational challenges in a developing society, focused on the areas of science, technology, entrepreneurship and maths in education, as well as propagating the use of open source software. The Foundation operated as a traditional funding agency – we accepted proposals and funded them. Grantees implemented their projects and came back with reports.

By the time we’d seen the third proposal suggesting the same intervention, we realised that we were not learning, building institutional knowledge or having sufficient impact in the world as a result of our investments. The ideas were all valuable in the world, but we had the potential to be more challenging and to make a contribution by testing theories in areas where other funders feared to tread.

We started down a road of incremental change. We gradually shifted our focus and methodology as we took stock of the ever changing landscape, seeing education in its wider context and experiencing the power technology had to speed up innovation, even in South Africa where access to such technologies was still scarce.

During 2006/7 however, we had a crisis of leadership which resulted in a very high staff turnover and no new projects being taken on. Whilst this was clearly not optimal, it also gave perspective and clarity, allowing us to ask questions and define our future as a Foundation based on what we thought could work, not from what we had inherited, or what someone else did. The breakdown of the organisation allowed us to imagine something better.

Our Funder gave a new mandate to the management team: Re-imagine the Foundation, based on openness and innovation, using the money we have in a smarter fashion. Sit with the kernel of our learnings, and create a process that will take best advantage of them. Most importantly, test our theories and work towards a re-boot.

We observed a number of things that informed this iteration of the Foundation.

  • Because our investments often involved a technological component, by the time we could agree on the perfect project plan with a grantee, innovations appeared and the contextual environment changed. We had to be more nimble.

  • Openness and technology enable the unrestricted sharing and spread of ideas. We could implement our programme internationally.

  • If there was not one person, a champion, whose life’s work it was to bring about the change, it could break an intervention. We should support people, not just projects.

This sparked a process of gradual but deliberate change, a journey from project based funding to the individual, independent fellowships of today. We focused in four thematic areas. Communication and Analytical Skills in Education, Intellectual Property Rights, Open and Collaborative Educational Resources, and Telecommunications.

We brought the projects in-house and offered residential fellowships to thematic experts and thought leaders in their respective fields. The strategy was to work on policy in order to remove legislative barriers and do action based projects that would demonstrate the potential of working bottom up. We wanted to bring about positive shifts in thinking and doing in the world, and we learnt a great deal, both in breadth and depth. These learnings became the building blocks of our current way of working.

  • It is better to support an idea where it originates, than try to make it conform to a geographic context. We support Fellows where were based, not just in South Africa.

  • While the policy space remains very important in removing barriers to change, action based initiatives are a better fit for us. It allows us to test theories about ideal policy in a real world and examine the results. We focus on implementation rather than policy.

  • Only some ideas will get traction and that is fine. It is the nature of being experimental and encouraging innovation. We actively encourage being bold, and learning from things that fail.

  • Innovation is rarely something that is entirely new, but rather fresh thinking that adds value in incremental ways. Either way, that is what we look for. We understand that context is important.

  • The ideas that are most interesting are those that are not yet dominating newspaper headlines or flooding social networks. Those ideas typically have enough brilliant minds and funders paying attention to them. We do not have set thematic areas for funding and are open to discovery.

  • Past success is not a guarantee of future success. Nor is proven expertise. Creative problem solving often comes from left field. We make bets on inspired brilliance rather than rewarding past successes.

  • Freeing up 100% of a person’s time, and even more importantly attention, to follow their dream, will accelerate the research and development process. We offer the equivalent of a reasonable salary as a fellowship grant, to remove the concerns of making a living and allow space to thrive.

  • A sense of ownership is important for the success of any initiative. When an individual has skin in the game, they are more likely to have true ownership, which lasts far longer than the financial investment of a donor and fuels the continuation of the work. We ask the Fellow to co-invest financial resources into their projects. We also ensure that any resulting IP vests in the Fellow.

  • Individual commitment can only move an idea forward up to a point. We give the Fellows access to project funding to amplify their own investment of time and money at least tenfold.

  • Levers for positive social change in society do not come in a standard package. Markets forces, charities, governments, universities and many other types of institutions have a role to play. We support Fellows by investing through the best vehicle fit for purpose, be it for profit, non-profit or a rogue individual.

  • When a great idea originates, it rarely comes with the experience of institution building. Administration, human resource, legal and financial quandaries are huge burdens and can often overtake the initial kernel of genius. We provide a legal, financial, administrative and technical home for the Fellows, allowing them to concentrate on their objectives.

This is by no means the end of our learning journey and evolution. Each fellowship is made up of a set of unique components linked to the individual, the theme and the context. Shared threads run through all or some of them. This think piece series is our expression of this continuing process, sharing some of our questions and discoveries along the way.

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