by SF Team, 12 January 2018
Early in 2017 we cemented our still new Honorary Steward process through an excellent fellowship selection round with Cory Doctorow. Having now completed a full year cycle of this process, we were excited to make this a more permanent part of how we work. Then we had an unexpected first: we did not award any fellowships in September 2017.
We had such a strong intake of Fellows in March 2017 - 4 Fellows from fields new to us, doing challenging work, driven by visions much larger than their projects.
The September 2017 round brought applications from individuals doing important, valuable, even groundbreaking work. We had the privilege of interviewing dozens of them, getting some insight into their thoughtful and passionate ideas for solving real problems. In the end, however, the applications fell short of our expectations. The strategies were largely reactionary rather than visionary.
It has always been a possibility to select no-one. This fellowship is not made up of quotas, nor do we consider selecting Fellows in itself to be a measure of success. We look for the right person, at the right time, with an idea that challenges convention.
Not finding the right fit got us thinking about success again. Success for us is a long game, not solely in working with our Fellows, but in terms of the fellowship programme itself. Our Alumni’s trajectories affirm that often the fellowship is only the beginning. It allows space for them to make a contribution to change, failing and sharing, and creating knowledge resources others can learn from, use and adapt freely along the way. This is true for each individual fellowship, but even more so for the collective. Over time we are starting to see a shift in the ecosystems Fellows have experimented in, with each fellowship being a stepping stone in a much larger pathway. Any new Fellow would have to show potential for making a contribution to something larger than themselves, to the progression of perception and practice in a field.
What does that mean for how we go forward? Reflecting on the world outside of our programme has shown us that there was a global pause, a taking of breath, in the social good community. We were recalibrating our understanding of the world as it is, the future we want and the future we believed we were working towards.
Much like our own approach, funders like Mozilla, Fast Forward, Echoing Green and the newly formed Obama Foundation have embraced this moment to set in motion the next wave of philanthropic funding: Focusing on the contribution brave individuals can make.
This approach requires a certain appetite for risk, letting the implementation of ideas unfold with enough freedom to take advantage of learning and the ever changing landscape. Managing philanthropic funding in the tried and tested way, delivering the same solutions, is creating less and less value for grant-makers and beneficiaries alike. Where registered entities and financial audits were sound builders of trust before, it is time to broaden the understanding of what sound philanthropic investments might look like.
As private philanthropists we have the unique privilege (unlike the public or private sectors) of defining our own measures of success. We have the opportunity to re-imagine our programmes to create space for new solutions to evolve. We can rediscover how to bring about positive change in a world that is now more interconnected and rapidly changing than ever before.
It is people who make the difference, not paperwork or policies. Investing in individuals - who already carry a strong vision for how they can make a positive difference - creates the opportunity to amplify any efforts made, funding given and time spent on these programmes, to have impact well beyond the reach of any one programme. A willingness to approach success as a measure over time, to which we can but make a contribution, allows value to manifest in unexpected ways.
So as we look towards 2018, we are encouraged by the fresh- and forward-thinking energy of the applications for the March 2018 intake. Taking a collective deep breath has us ready for the next wave.