14 Taking the long view

Funders can be obsessive about metrics and demand to see progress happening in highly specific ways, which may – or may not – be applicable to the work being funded. Some funders use language that fails to correlate with the problems the work is trying to solve, or they attempt to jam projects into preexisting spreadsheets. Almost always, this serves an internal metric created for use by people far away. It is a proxy treated as absolute, unconsciously or otherwise. At the Foundation, we take the long view, and look at individual, shared, and collaborative success.

Esra’a Al Shafei’s CrowdVoice.org has 30,000 highly engaged users, including human rights lawyers, teachers and journalists. It’s an important service giving context to sensitive issues in the world’s most dangerous and complex places. Traditional funders ask, “How long will it take before there are a million users?” That’s completely missing the point. More users means appealing to an entirely different audience – a very real example of how the wrong metrics can harm a project and derail the intended change.

Unfortunately, many still think of scale as success and that bigger is always better. This thinking leads us to measure growth on a balance sheet or count the number of heads in the staff room. But building something bigger doesn’t mean serving the mission better, or achieving greater impact. These are purely vanity metrics.

Greg McKeown introduced the idea of the clarity paradox.1 This proposes that when we have true clarity of purpose, it leads to success. With success comes new opportunities, leading to new options and prospects. These new possibilities diffuse efforts that undermine the very clarity that brought success in the first place. Using scale as a metric of success may turn into pursuit of scale, which can damage the ability to create the change originally sought. To avoid this paradox and maintain focus, scale should be thought about and planned explicitly as a strategic choice, instead of a default.

So how do we measure success?

Determining the right measure is messy, hard and sometimes impossible. Impact is complicated. It does not adhere to implementation timelines, and often involves important factors that extend beyond anyone’s control. There is no single measure of success.

We address this problem by working with fellows to define their own terms for success. We then use those terms as a measure. We ask questions, of course, to challenge their framing and bring in broader thinking, but it is the fellows who define and evaluate what their own successes look like.

Change doesn’t happen overnight – it comes in incremental steps. Measuring total success is impossible. Instead we ask if each step towards that vision was successful, and on what terms? This can be done in a way that has real meaning.

It is constant reevaluation, not a static metric that allows fellows to course-correct iteratively. Our approach turns both success and failure into a process of reflection everyone learns from. Intentionally sharing progress, successes, failures and modulations of a fellow’s trajectory is invaluable.

Success for us is not an all-or-nothing measure. If what we genuinely seek is change, then we need to think in terms of iterative steps towards that change and what we learn with each step.

The more powerful measure of success is how long fellows remain committed to and actively working towards their vision. Social change is a long process, and for this reason, it’s important to give people space and resources to break down the systems they target – and build them back up – with a strategy to help them do it for as long as possible. This is why we believe funding should be about the person; about helping them become resilient enough to effect change over a lifetime.

Arthur Attwell worked tirelessly on Paperight for years and had to make the heartbreaking decision to close it down. Most would see a project’s death as failure; we don’t. Arthur was absolutely a successful Shuttleworth Fellow. He introduced important new conversations in the publishing world and carries many of his learnings into new enterprises. He is still pushing for change in the publishing industry and increasing accessibility to books. He remains a committed, engaged and highly valuable member of the fellowship. This is successful iteration.

In the context of the fellowship, failures are recycled as shared learnings. Just as importantly, large-scale failure leaves behind scaffolding that others can build on. In this sense, current failure is a future shortcut for someone else and enables inter-generational progress, building on the work of those who came before. This is the reason we make intellectual property open.

The work we have done on ubiquitous, affordable access to telecommunications and educational resources has made a significant contribution to shifting policy and practice. It hasn’t happened within one fellowship year or a single project plan. It has taken time, iteration and experimentation, and it is not always possible to see how today’s work contributes to tomorrow’s successes. Each failure is a potential building block.

One of the first fellows, Mark Surman, gave a flash grant to Jesse von Doom, who then successfully applied for a fellowship. Shortly after, Jesse suggested Sean Bonner apply, and gave Astra Taylor a flash grant. Sean was offered a fellowship to work on Safecast, and the following year Astra accepted a fellowship to work on The Debt Collective. Both Safecast and The Debt Collective have had significant social and political impacts, but we could never have known that Mark’s fellowship revolving around open philanthropy would have led us to them.

Nurture a successful culture, and you attract others of the same mould – but there is a need for caution. Like-minds thrive off each other’s views; single minds grow blind to ideas. For the fellowship to blossom fully, it must diversify into new geographies, listen to new perspectives and uncover new concepts. We pursue the right fit, but we aren’t building clones.