Shuttleworth Foundation Application FAQs

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 23 October 2020

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Your application questions, answered…

Thank you to everyone who joined us for our first ever application information webinars. We found it a very useful process and hope you got as much out of it as we did. Recordings of each session are here if you need to recap or missed out entirely.

Session 1: 23 September 2020
Session 2: 14 October 2020

Below, we have created an FAQ to refine and explain more about the application process and include links to some further, relevant reading. The subject matter is split into distinct categories based on the many questions you asked:

  • Our funding philosophy
  • What we look for in your application
  • What happens during the application process
  • What to expect on the fellowship

If you have any further questions related to your application that are not covered by the FAQs or webinars, feel free to contact us at 

What does open mean?

What is open?

Open is a philosophical pillar of our fellowship that provides a framework for exponential growth and development of your idea. You create something, share it with the world, and grant permission for anyone to use, adapt, or build on it.

Why is it important?

By working openly, you enable access, participation and replication by as many people as possible, who learn from it and can use it in different - and often surprising - contexts. This approach generates greater opportunities for achieving social change than found in traditional R&D, where the default setting for innovation and ideas is secrecy.

Do I have to use an open license?

Yes, but this fellowship is not just about licensing choices. It is more about having a certain mindset. Our definition of open is very broad, and we actively pursue new thinking around openness within the fellowship. With this in mind, we ask that you articulate your interpretation of openness in relation to ours.

What does open mean to you? What role does it play in your idea? Perhaps there is a component of your work where open is not advisable - citizen safety or privacy, for example? As long as your interpretation does not centre around something specifically proprietary or closed, and aligns closely with our ideas of frictionless, permissionless sharing, we are keen to hear from you.

How open is ‘open enough’?

We understand there is not an open solution for everything, and sometimes it’s necessary to explore proprietary avenues or close specific pieces of your project. This should not muddy any water with regards to your application, however. While these instances are suitable for the wider world, they are not a good fit for the fellowship. We seek natively open initiatives because our goal is to expand ideas, not lock them away for exclusive use and purposes.

If you are interested in a Shuttleworth Fellowship, think about your starting point. Are you comfortable with openness and is it your clear intention to be as open as possible from the very beginning? If not, you may benefit more from exploring different funding opportunities or taking the venture capital route. 

How does open fit with sustainability and intellectual property?

We want you - as the person who can best drive your idea forward - to have ownership of what you create. Throughout the fellowship, we will explore how you’re going to achieve broader sustainability: it could be through service provision, other grants, or something else entirely. We believe in openness at the core, but are entirely agnostic about whether your idea manifests as nonprofit or for-profit further in the future. 

Building sustainability is hard, whether it’s with open or proprietary intellectual property. There is no one model for success, and it is context specific. There are many creative ways to achieve long-term stability and progress by working openly, and our fellows have successfully established both non- and for-profit entities built on openness. If you are concerned that openness by its very nature will preclude future sustainability, this fellowship is unlikely to be a good fit. 

Further reading:

What is innovation?

What does innovation mean?

Innovation does not have to be something new under the sun. When we talk about innovation, we mean fresh thinking that adds value. It’s about doing something differently and offering a new perspective to apply to current or emerging issues.

Think about this when you articulate your idea in your application. How are you going against the status quo? Tell us how applying a different way of thinking to your field of expertise might unlock, or become part of, a solution. 

Why do you focus on innovation?

One solution never fits all. Many of the world’s problems have known solutions, but these solutions are not often implemented. This failure is due to social, political and economic reasons and requires massive systemic change to overcome.  

Often, these issues are unsuitable for the attention of governments or multinational NGOs, who have a responsibility to avoid taking risks. We are in a privileged position to be able to absorb those risks. You get an opportunity to innovate, experiment, learn from failure, and share and build on your success. 

Further reading:

Why do you focus on individuals?

Why do you fund individuals?

Individuals carry their learnings, experiences, passions and hopes for the future with them throughout their lives. Investing in and supporting you to work on what is broken in your world, equips you to continue affecting change far beyond the life of a specific project or organisation.

We fund you as an individual to offer the best, most efficient support, and help you iterate ideas and realise your vision. In our past life as a funder of projects and institutions, we found multiple issues often took precedence over the mission. An institution’s primary drive is always to take care of itself: it needs to survive, regardless of a particular project’s success. 

Together, we can work out the best way to achieve your vision and target funds more directly at the mission, as opposed to supporting the constantly changing needs of an entire organisation. We also form close relationships within the fellowship and share, learn, and work together to gain a better understanding of how to create the most impact. This is impossible to achieve when funding a project or institution with multiple stakeholders.

What about my organisation?

We fund individuals, but that does not exclude people who are already part of an organisation. This is an independent, non-traditional fellowship that enables you to drive your own practical experimentation and learning. It gives you the opportunity to go out in the field as an individual and a leader.  

You might be at an institution or involved with a nonprofit, or have plans to create an organisation yourself. You may be connected to an academic institution and wish to remain so because it offers natural support for the specific work you are doing. You may not need any of those things, or you may need all of them in different places at different times. By funding you as an individual, we can work together to determine the best legal structures to support your work.

Further reading:

What are you looking for in the application?

Why is the application designed this way?

The application form consists of three parts, which we review in this order: the video, the essay-based questions, and a set of data-based questions. We want to establish four key facts to help us fully understand your idea:

  • What are you going to do?
  • Why this idea?
  • Why now?
  • And finally, why you?

We are looking for you to tell us your story within the context of your idea and application, and give us a sense of your current status. The application process is designed to be as helpful to you as it is for us. It is not supposed to trip you up, but instead prompt thoughts on what you believe about the world and what you want from this opportunity.

What do you look for in the video?

Your video helps set the scene, showcase your passion for your work, and explain why a Shuttleworth Fellowship is a good fit for both you and your idea. It needs to be purpose-made for this application and fit for universal consumption. Sound quality and clarity of voice are the most important aspects to consider, so we can hear and understand what you’re saying. We do not expect Hollywood production quality: some of the best applications we’ve received have been in simple talking head format.

What is the purpose of the essay questions?

The questions start broadly by design, before slowly drilling down to the specifics of what you are trying to achieve. If the video sets the scene, this is your chance to tell us about the bigger picture, describe your specific problem, and discuss how you will apply openness and fresh thinking to solve it.

We ask you to put yourself into the eye of the storm, right in the middle of the issue. Why is this important to you and why are you the right person to make a difference? What unique skill or ability do you bring to the table? And what can you achieve in a year that will actually shift thinking and positively affect the status quo?

What is the purpose of the short questions?

Part three of the application is a simple data gathering exercise to tell us about the current status of your work. Understanding your present situation enables us to really dig deeper and spend time asking more interesting, intriguing and unusual questions if you reach the interview stage.

There are no ‘wrong’ answers. We do not have a preference for individuals with organisations or without, nonprofits or for-profit, jurisdictions or age. We welcome fellows from the age of 18 to 80 - and beyond. Our only requirement is that you should be of an age to legally sign your own agreements.

How many people apply, and how many get in?

Application numbers vary from 250-450 per round. We choose no more than four fellows per intake, but are not under obligation to choose anyone: there have been rounds where we haven’t found the right fit at all.

Only a small fraction of applications result in immediate success, but do not let this put you off: there is always a chance your idea shines through. Do not let failure get you down, either. Many people apply multiple times and have become fellows at the second or third attempt.

Further reading:

What happens in the application process?

What is the deadline?

The deadline for our next fellowship intake is 15 October 2021. We take time zones into consideration and will happily receive applications any time before the end of day Anywhere on Earth.

What is the timeline from submission to notification?

We get a large number of applications and are committed to reviewing every single one. You should find out where you stand within four weeks from the application deadline. It takes us about two weeks to get through the first round of review, after which we schedule interviews. Generally, the interview process takes another two weeks. 

The final decision sometimes goes over into January, but by then you will know if you’ve been shortlisted and aware of the exact timeline going forward. We get back to everyone, and let people know if they don’t make it through any given stage. While it is impossible for us to offer much in the way of feedback for every application, we do try and answer your questions if you have any after the process is completed.

Who decides, and how?

Every round, we invite a different Honorary Steward to choose new fellows from a shortlist derived by the core team. Each Steward offers an independent perspective, helping us identify different ideas and fresh thinking to bring into the fellowship. 

The final decision is overseen and ratified by our board of trustees. Their concern is to ensure the process has been fair, the Steward has taken the role seriously, and they have thought about the criteria to find the best fit for the Foundation at this given time. 

What determines a 1, 2, or 3 year fellowship?

All fellowships are assessed a year at a time, with the possibility to apply for a second or third year. While the reapplication process is similar in structure to the original application we will know you and your work better, so it is a more involved conversation about your progress. 

We will consider how you’ve developed your work, discuss what we have learned together, and ask how you might advance the idea further. The most important question at this stage is: what’s next? What will you do with another fellowship year, and is it still useful for us to be in partnership? 

Who gets to see my application?

The application process is not made public, and we are always respectful of your privacy to prevent exclusion of individuals discussing sensitive issues or who are in sensitive situations. We want you to have the confidence to discuss the problem you see in the world and how you will make a change without fear or repercussion.

Further reading:

What can I expect in terms of funding?

What is the time commitment and what does ‘full time’ mean?

You are the single most valuable resource to your initiative. This is your idea, it’s something you care about, and something you’re passionate about. It is a problem you’ve identified and understand, and you have the skills and experience and the vision to do something about this. That is why we ask you for 100% of your focus. It’s an opportunity to fully explore and advance your ideas with minimal distractions or pressures from other work. 

This commitment doesn’t mean you can’t have other affiliations or participate in other roles, as long as these do not get in the way of your commitment to working on this idea. Your project or initiative could have all the money, funding and support in the world, but if it doesn’t have your time, attention and focus, it won’t reach its potential. 

How much is the grant amount?

The funding consists of two parts. First, there is the fellowship grant, which is a salary equivalent. You are not employed by the Foundation, but we do want to cover the full cost of your time. This amount differs between fellow. Although we can’t afford to match every private sector salary, we ask you to tell us your realistic expectations. If we offer you a fellowship grant, we try and get as close to that as possible. 

The second part is project funding. This amounts to $275,000 per fellow per year which is allocated for you to spend directly on your idea. You do not have to use all the money within a year, but we do encourage fellows to take the opportunity to be experimental and adventurous.

How can I use the project funding?

We have no outright exclusions on what project funding may be used for, other than it cannot be used to supplement the fellow’s personal income. Project funding can be used for almost any legal purpose that advances your knowledge, experience, experimentation, or testing of the idea. Funding can be used for core costs or project costs, or anything that can be used to advance implementation. As long as you spend thoughtfully and carefully, this will be the most unencumbered funding you will ever have. 

We like to use the example of deciding to buy a party bus. If you are researching cellular agriculture, a party bus is unlikely to add value to your idea, which makes it a bad use of the funding. But if you are in Brussels trying to convince the European Parliament to change their stance on the Right to Repair, a party bus travelling through the streets might drive public support for your idea and help spread your message. We take this into account when assessing reapplications.

How do we define success?

As a Foundation, we are interested in behaviour change, but behaviour change is slow, messy, and doesn’t follow a linear process. We work with you to understand what you see as a success, and encourage you to set your own markers for progress. We hold honest conversations around these self-defined indicators throughout the fellowship. 

We also understand that social change doesn’t happen overnight, and take a long-view approach. Five years after your funding ends, we look at the bigger picture and revisit your idea, look at your ongoing engagement with the fellowship, and ask if you are still working in the same or similar space. 

Success within the fellowship is demonstrating best effort in implementing your idea, understanding the outcomes of those efforts and how they contribute to progress towards our agreed shared objectives.

Is commercialisation allowed?

We are entirely happy for fellows to commercialise an idea right from the start or later on in their fellowship and offer support accordingly. We recognise that positive social change can and does happen as a result of commercial activity. 

Do you take equity in for-profit entities?

We expect an equity share of 30% for that commercial venture as we put in all the initial funding. This amount does not increase as we give you more money in the second and third year of your fellowship. There is no profit motive for us: if you become a runaway success, any money we receive will be used to find and support more fellows.

This approach is designed so you will remain with at least 51% control of your venture and allows us to remain in the thick of it with you; learning, experimenting and developing together as we go. We would like every fellowship project to be sustainable after your Shuttleworth funding ends, but there is no single model that is right for every open initiative. By having a seat at your table, we develop more of an understanding of what it takes to build a sustainable for-profit organisation and can filter that information back into the fellowship. 

Further reading:

Fellowship Stories:

REMINDER: Applications for our next fellowship round close on 15 October 2021.

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