17 Once a fellow, always a fellow

Funded fellowships last from one to three years, but when the funding runs dry, fellows aren’t “out”.

It stands to reason that lifelong change-makers who find a home and place with likeminded others tend to value those relationships and maintain them. It’s also true that the longer fellows are around, the better others come to know them and their work; thus conversations and relationships become deeper and stronger. The shared experiences and trust fellows have built, the collaborations established, the advisors gained and the friendships made are rare, lasting and important. Fellows that come to the Gatherings or participate in communication channels bring news from their journeys, new learnings and new questions. The current fellows learn from this wisdom and benefit from experiences accumulated far beyond the fellowship. Returning fellows also learn from the new people and ideas that have entered the community since their fellowships ended.

At the 2017 Vancouver Gathering, Gavin Weale, a fellow who works in a number of African countries training young people to produce magazines and digital marketing, came back with an incredibly honest and vulnerable war story about how not to scale. The whole room was rapt. Everyone recognised the quandary and had felt the same pressure from funders to hit a number rather than achieve meaningful impact.

In response, the group pooled experiences and ideas to crowdsource “The Ten Commandments of Scale”, including this gem by current fellow Isha Datar, whose New Harvest project is advancing the field of cellular agriculture and building the foundations for a post-animal bioeconomy:

“Thou shalt have stretchy pants.” Keep in mind worst- and best-case scenarios, and how you will manage the changing cashflow inherent in funder-based growth, and make sure you can scale up and down in an agile way (like stretchy pants do).

Openness, trust and respect are the bedrock of every long-lasting relationship, but this social glue is not always enough. It’s a challenge for individuals from disparate fields and time zones to stay in touch, either as friends or as a network: personal and work commitments must come first. The Foundation’s responsibility is to make sure connectedness can happen. Aside from the Gatherings and communications channels, there are several ideas we use to help nurture a continuing sense of community between fellowship and fellow. Here are a few examples:


There are many legal forms, governed by boards of trustees, used to house and implement an idea. The most appropriate structure may evolve over the lifespan of a project. The Foundation has no preference between non-profit, for-profit or no structure at all; it is about what works best for the work of the fellow.

Good boards provide strategic direction, support the organisation’s leaders and help to explore difficult questions the team might face. The Foundation joins the fellow’s decision-making board for the structure they choose. We bring expertise and experience, and in turn we learn from a new group of leaders, often in a field we are less familiar with. We remain a part of the board as long as we can add value, often long after the funding has ended. Our learnings are fed back into the fellowship.

Fellows also support each other. Esra’a Al Shafei transitioned from current fellow in September 2015, just as Astra Taylor joined. Esra’a got to know Astra and discovered their shared vision and values. Astra now serves on Esra’a’s board.

Flash Grants

Expanding community thinking beyond the fellows is an overt goal of building the fellowship over time. The fellows’ communities benefit from ambient sharing, and fellows are also empowered to fund others they believe in through a programme called Flash Grants.

Flash Grants create a shared responsibility between fellow and Foundation. Each fellow has the opportunity to nominate someone they think is doing good work to receive a one-time award of $5,000, with minimal strings attached.

Flash Grant recipients agree to “live out loud” and tell the world they have Shuttleworth Foundation support. After six months they report back on how they used the funds.

Flash Grants are a very easy way for us to explore new ideas and new ways of giving. $5,000 is a small enough amount to risk – for both Foundation and fellows – yet large enough to make a difference to the right recipient. Flash Grants also turn the tables to some extent, by transforming the fellows into funders in their own right, with strategies, priorities and themes of their own.

Gathering letters

One of the ways fellows stay connected over time is the Gathering letters. In the very last session of every Gathering, each participant gets a piece of paper and a locally branded envelope, anchoring it in a time and place. Everyone attending has 30 minutes to find a quiet place and write a letter, starting with how they are feeling in the moment and then imagining what they would like to say to themselves six months from now. The letter is then sealed in the envelope, saved and handed back, for the writer’s eyes only at the next Gathering they attend. This intimate reflection connects us to our past and future selves, over time.

Collective growth

The experience of one of our first fellows, Mark Horner, illustrates our journey and the core principles of the fellowship. While Mark was getting his PhD in physics and tutoring undergraduates, he and a few friends started the Free High School Textbooks project to solve a need he saw personally in the students he tutored. Karien Bezuidenhout, at the Foundation during its grantmaker phase, saw what he was doing, sought him out, and offered a small grant for the project. He got his PhD, did post-graduate work at Berkeley and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and then landed what should have been his dream job in science – which ultimately didn’t feel nearly as important as what he was doing with the textbooks.

We continued to follow his progress on open textbooks. When we heard that he was ready to work on open textbooks full-time, we hired him to do that with us. Technically, he was a project manager at the Foundation, but he continued to fully own and drive his own project.

As our funding model evolved into the current fellowship structure, Mark became one of our first fellows, experiencing the visceral, and sometimes painful, rapid evolution of the model in each of his fellowship years. He embodies our shift to “people not projects”.

Mark and his organisation, Siyavula, taught us a great deal about openness and building a sustainable enterprise. The textbooks he created during the fellowship are open by default and still at the heart of the Siyavula offering. However, the income stream has grown out of a product – practice software – built upon the open content, but not open itself. Is that still making the world a better place through openness? We believe so. The open textbooks remain available and accessible to all, helping learners get to grips with the core curriculum. The practice software follows sound educational principles, adding value on top of the books at a reasonable price, for learners to cement their learning.

The Foundation remains a shareholder in Siyavula, and Karien remains a member of the board of directors. We hope to achieve true sustainability together, while continuing to learn from Mark and his team for some time to come.

…Always a fellow

Of course, it is always possible for a fellow to take the money, be pleasant and move on. The benefits of their fellowship experience will be ephemeral. Some may fade away because of family or work commitments and return to the fold later, recharged with new experiences and looking for new ideas to take ideas back to their own organisations. But all fellows have the opportunity to benefit from the support of the community and continue as a valued member and contributor. Most are still part of the fellowship, and many are active, both in person and online. Once a fellow, always a fellow.