20 Years On: Reflections From the Frontier of Philanthropy

by Chris McGivern, 24 March 2022

Last year, The Shuttleworth Foundation turned twenty!

Our experiment to re-imagine philanthropy has made the Foundation a very different organisation from the one it resembled in 2001. It’s been a long, sometimes bumpy, but mostly positive journey into maturity. As individuals, we have - hopefully - gained a little wisdom to accompany our wrinkles and wanted to collect our thoughts to pause and reflect on our story so far. We hope you will find something useful in Field Notes From the Frontier of Philanthropy and find it thought-provoking, helpful or adaptable in some way.

But mostly, we hope it inspires you to think differently and, maybe, take action. The world must change substantially and urgently. Even without the unknown, long-tail impacts of the pandemic, we live in an era of damaging social unrest, rising levels of inequality and rampant environmental destruction. It is a far cry from what technology promised in 2001.

We share a birth year with the launch of the iPod, iTunes, Wikipedia and the world’s first 3G network. Computerphobia of the ’80s and ’90s was peaking with the dot-com bust and the Y2K Bug, and entering remission as Web 2.0 emerged. Broadband was beginning to replace dial-up. A revolution was happening in our pockets as mobile phones became smaller, then smarter, changing the way we organise our lives and interact with each other in almost every conceivable way. Looking back, they were heady days. Technology was going to be the saviour.

But the opposite has proven true. In the post-9/11 world, our physical movements are tracked aggressively, more than at any other time in history. Surveillance capitalism is dining out at The Savoy on our private thoughts and personal data. A mix of extraction, exploitation and artificial scarcity remains the business model of our times. We bought smartphones in abundance, then just threw them away for the next upgrade, creating mountains of electronic waste, leaking batteries, and never-to-be-recovered precious metals in the process. And it’s not even fun anymore: social media was meant to engage us and bring us all together, not enrage us and rip us apart.

There is hope, however. New political, social and economic models are emerging during this period of global and technological disruption. Some are beginning to gain traction. People are turning their backs on the status quo as they realise its systems and power structures - designed and optimised for yesterday’s industries - do not and will not work in today’s context. Philanthropy must do the same if globalisation’s discontents are not to become its malcontents.

There couldn’t be a better time to start forging real change, despite the chaos and fear and trepidation about the future. That is why we will continue to fund individuals brave enough to introduce new ideas and innovations and build new systems for a more open and equitable world. Of course, we can’t guarantee a better future in the next twenty years, but we will spare no effort to get there. And we hope you will come along for the ride.


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