by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 9 June 2020
We wrote a book. Here’s why...
As a small organisation operating at a fraction of the budget enjoyed by many other funders, we must continuously and closely scrutinise our work. Our philosophy remains the same, but new fellows, ideas and experiences contribute to our knowledge pool and influence where we go next - and how. We adapt our methods accordingly, weaving in best practices and weeding out roadblocks to our fellows’ mission progress. Just as our views on systemic shifts are centred in a conviction for evolution, not revolution, we believe positive, lasting organisational change is best achieved gradually and incrementally.
However, it is also vital to take stock of long-term progress. In 2018, we took a deep dive into the previous decade of our fellowship model, revisiting highs - and lows - and speaking to fellows about their experiences. We intended to uncover wrong turns and to explore areas where we could improve. There was plenty to chew on but, overall, we were pleasantly surprised: discussions with our growing community of past and present fellows revealed our alternative model of philanthropy holds up well.
We started this experimental model in 2007 with the belief that philanthropy could be better. Our idea was to instil openness, collaboration and community into our approach. We wanted to replace the hierarchical structures typically seen in traditional funding with a focus on co-ownership, agency and empowerment. There have been some tweaks around the edges since but, today, we believe those fundamental elements continue to offer our fellows greater agency to make progress and unlock more benefit for society.
Which brings us to our book. In one part, it tells our story as a community and offers hat tips to those who have contributed along the way. We don’t like to talk about success or failure and prefer to focus our thoughts on progress and learning. But on reflection, it is striking how much our fellows move their fields forward.
Consider our funding efforts in telecommunications, where we see a trend towards bottom-up connectivity and community-owned networks. Our fellows have played a significant role in this blossoming movement. Individual projects by Steve Song, Paul Gardner-Stephen, Peter Bloom and Luka Mustafa have built on each other to great effect to democratise access and empower communities, reduce costs, and shift thinking at policy level. Elsewhere, in a world dominated by global finance, Astra Taylor’s work with The Debt Collective community poses important questions about money and debt: her efforts so far helped eliminate over a billion dollars of student debt owed to predatory lenders.
These impressive examples of fellowship projects impact millions of people - even more extraordinary when you consider they were achieved on a relatively meagre budget of around a million dollars per fellow, over a three-year fellowship. In our view, it is clear this demonstrates that size of grant - often the central component of the funder-fundee relationship - is not a lone indicator of success. There is far more to consider, which is the second source of inspiration for our book.
We seek system change in our domain just as our fellows seek change in theirs. Several major funders have borrowed from our ideas, as we have borrowed from others - just as it should be. Yet our community’s frustrations with the traditional philanthropic world remain. Changemakers with vast potential are still overwhelmingly restricted by top-down approaches to funding, arbitrary metrics, short-termism, and more. If we want to live in a better, more equitable world, this must be addressed.
We aim to do this in our book and add some practical flesh to the philosophical bones of Open philanthropy to better explain the hows and whys of our working methods. It is not a how-to guide or instruction manual - our processes fit our intent and purpose, and we know they may not work for others. Instead, we hope it provides inspiration and shows the strength of openness as a foundation from which to build viable alternatives to unhelpful funding practices. We hope it makes you think. But mostly, that you enjoy it…