18 The $5m challenge

Consider the annual budgets of a few noteworthy funders: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s total 2017 direct grantee support was $4.7bn.1 The Open Society Foundation’s budget for 2018 was over $1bn.2 Omidyar Network’s 2016 expenses were more than $125m.3 The Wikimedia Foundation’s total expenses for 2017 were in excess of $69m.4

Now consider how someone might spend $5m. Five million dollars will buy you a Lamborghini Veneno, or a three-bedroom flat in central London. It could pay for a single 30-second Super Bowl ad, 29 Snapchat lenses, a week-long campaign on Facebook or eight posts on Instagram from Selena Gomez.

Or, $5m could fund a year of determined fellows working on ideas that have the potential to change the world.

The Shuttleworth Foundation operates at a tiny fraction of the annual budget for most funders. With just $5m per year, we have produced 46 fellows so far. 90% of them continue to innovate in their field.

This impact is sustained because we pick people, not projects, and remain committed to them.

A three year fellowship provides up to $1m in funding. The following illustrate the long-term impact of the fellowship:

Some fellows create organisations that endure; some go on to established institutions. Fellows continue to work on their vision through places such as Mozilla and CERN. Others build on the work that came before, such as Steve Song, Paul Gardner-Stephen, Peter Bloom and Luka Mustafa, who have all contributed incremental parts of a larger telecoms solution worth multiple billions of dollars. We could not have mapped out this trajectory when we started 10 years ago. We began with a big vision and found the right people to shape and grow it.

The Foundation and fellows are often asked how our fellowship model works in order to duplicate its efficient return on investment. The model has been copied, but not always successfully. The numbers don’t work without the core philosophies and the fellows we choose – as much for their fit with the fellowship as their individual potential.

Imagine going to a friend’s house for dinner. The meal is delicious, and you take a mental note of the ingredients, so you can try cooking it yourself at home. But unless you are very lucky, it’s highly unlikely the dish will come out exactly the same. Your friend will use different utensils, a higher quality of ingredient, or perhaps be a little more liberal with herbs and seasoning. The result could be similar, although a little less tasty. It might be a complete disaster. Even if you had a full recipe, it is impossible to replicate the dish exactly, because you have to honour the precise process to achieve the desired result.

The fellowship only works if the intent and principles remain the same. If the recipe changes, you get a different meal.

$5m goes a long way when you are thoughtful and deliberate about how and whom you fund.