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Breaking With Funding Tradition Can Offer Benefits Beyond the Obvious

4Q4 Podcast, Interviews

Helen Turvey of Shuttleworth Foundation sheds light on the disconnect between funders and the communities they serve.

Digital Impact 4Q4 Podcast: Helen Turvey on Breaking with Funding Tradition


00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4, I’m Chris Delatorre. Today’s four questions are for Helen Turvey, Executive Director of the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Following a recent conversation with Bahrain-based activist Esra’a Al Shafei, it was clear that funders could do more when it comes to supporting digital infrastructure. But, as Esra’a also pointed out, there are funders who are embracing innovation in ways that can help to alleviate risk aversion in the sector.

One example is the Shuttleworth Foundation, which uses an alternative funding methodology through its fellowship grant to ensure greater support for its beneficiaries. Helen Turvey, now at the Foundation for more than a decade, is driving the evolution from traditional funder to the current co-investment fellowship model. It’s all part of working toward a future the Foundation describes as “a global open knowledge society with unhindered access to essential information,” one in which social challenges are easier to address.

Helen, the Shuttleworth Foundation puts openness above all else, from communications, resources and reporting to software and licensing. It says in your bio that you’re driven by the belief that openness has benefits beyond the obvious. To what degree does a more open approach guarantee quality? Is it possible to be too open?

01:33 HELEN TURVEY: So, not that I’ve found so far. The question, so does an open approach guarantee quality. I don’t think it does actually guarantee the quality. But to take a little bit of a step back, we’re a private foundation and most of the foundations in this space are private. We’re answerable to our trustees and to a greater moral compass. So we are private practice for a public good. And that is a huge responsibility. We’re not here to maximize the bottom line or to get anything out of it other than that public good. So if we can magnify our spending by allowing others to replicate, to reuse, to remix, to redistribute, we increase that public good. We increase the public good that we’re able to achieve with a finite amount of money. And so that is what openness allows. Openness allows us to be better, to be better and be better within philanthropy.

“The successes I’ve seen are far bigger, far faster, more cost effective than when you lock something behind a paywall.”

In terms of the guaranteeing of the quality. Maybe not to start with but absolutely. As things grow and progress, they do, in my opinion become better than what was there before. So some of the ideas that we fund, they’re wildly successful. They take off, they’re translated into many tens of languages, they’re repurposed for different contexts that we can envisage, contributing to a far more positive social change than we could have ever imagined. But then there are the ideas that don’t take off, they don’t succeed, the ones that stumble. And that’s because of timing or the policy landscape isn’t right, or in fact the idea just wasn’t right in that particular incarnation.

But if you’re open and not just open in name by sticking an open license on something, but truly open – so documenting your learnings, leaving the digital assets behind – then we see time and time again that people pick up those ideas in different contexts and drive them forward, iterating to huge success. So the quality. It’s not a shortcut to quality but it is something that has a roadmap to that quality. It might just not always be the way in which we envisaged it right at the start. The successes I’ve seen are far bigger, far faster, more cost effective than when you lock something behind a paywall.

04:05 CHRIS DELATORRE: When it comes to exchanging information, in your experience, what do practitioners see that funders don’t? How can we elevate on-the-ground expertise to reshape power dynamics in the sector?

04:17 HELEN TURVEY:  What do they see? They see everything, everything that we don’t see. The people on the front lines, they see every single nuance, every unwritten and unreported detail that is the magic is in how something works. I think very often we think that social change – it’s like a project, you know. Here’s my roadmap, here are the milestones. In funding this, I’ve got great people on the lines, therefore it should work out to this deliberate conclusion that we have pre-identified. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Social change is not just about – it’s about something that’s far more nuanced and difficult than that. It’s about behavior, it’s about attitudes, it’s about sectoral and systems change, it’s about governments, it’s about fads. And the people on the front lines are the ones that – they experience that every single day and it’s not something that you can possibly understand if it’s not your lived experience. Those day-in-day-out frustrations are the very thing that makes something either succeed or fail. And if I sit here as somebody who’s funding, I can see something that’s a massive success or something that hasn’t worked out, and either decide to replicate or pull the plug or whatever would be the obvious course of action. But I don’t understand the exact conditions of that context and know what is the right thing to do. So I think it’s very difficult to have that opinion as a funder, that we can see more, because I just don’t believe that to be true.

But one of the other most important things that I don’t think we see as funders is the isolation. It’s really hard to affect change, to fight injustice, to build something better and all of the time the people who are doing this, they are at the whim of funding fashions, they have to meet multiple sets of metrics, and they have to do the actual good on the ground. They have to be a reporter, a salesperson, a marketer, a project manager, they have to wear many, many different hats. And that’s isolating and really hard when actually the thing that they should be concentrating on is the thing that they’re trying to bring to fruition in the first place.

06:54 CHRIS DELATORRE: You’ve said and I quote, “We live in a ‘for free’ world and folks forget that the commodity that’s traded is you. There’s no such thing as a free service.” First, what do you mean by this. And second, does the fallacy of ‘free culture’ influence how funders prioritize their support of digital infrastructure?

07:17 HELEN TURVEY: It’s terrible when someone quotes something you’ve said [laughs]. Yes, I have said that before and also um in various different ways. And there are so many layers to this. It’s hard to know where to start. But just thinking about the world we live in, the analog world and virtual world have very few barriers anymore. Information, connections, anything you do socially or for business or for your health, the platforms and services are there instantly at zero cost. And we forget or possibly we don’t even know that the cost is actually us. We’ve become so used to trading convenience for freedom, we don’t see the future pitfalls anymore. We don’t see the erosion of our privacy, we don’t see the erosion of our democracies, and we don’t see our – anything wrong in our ability to move forward in this way. We don’t see that we are being funneled, channeled, sold, and I think there’s a very dangerous place that we’re building for ourselves.

“It’s certainly very apparent that doing what’s always been done isn’t going to be the solution anymore.”

However, when it comes to funding specifically, that has, I think, permeated through in a slightly different way. We don’t see the value of how systems and platforms and technology is built because it’s there for us for free all the time. We also don’t see that starting something isn’t good enough. We like something new, we like something shiny but actually what we need to do I think is invest for the long term. And invest in the boring stuff, you know the backend plumbing that makes things solid, good, private, reliable – those are the things that will help us govern better. Those are the things that will protect rights. Those are the things that are going to help social justice movements, and they need to be continuously supported.

And this is where openness is great and truly open is a great advantage but it’s not free of cost. Things still need to be hosted, things still need to be maintained. I would argue that the investment goes much, much further if it is open, simply by having many eyeballs and many people and communities that can actively participate. But it’s definitely not free of cost. And so there does seem to be a conflation of the world that has become our everyday and a lack of understanding of what it genuinely takes to provide a service.

10:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: You see a fundamental disconnect between people who need support in the field and how systems are set up to support them. Esra’a Al Shafei describes traditional funding models as “yielding metrics but not genuine, long-term or sustainable impact.” Now, it’s clear that value and services are exchanged differently across cultures, which means context is key. It seems like this would require funders to allocate more for general operations. But as recently as 5 years ago, the percentage of funds devoted to general operating support was something like 25 percent (source). Since, organizations like The Center for Effective Philanthropy have radically changed their approach (source). How can funders who are “locked in” to more rigid structures evolve in order to ensure greater impact?

“We don’t know what is important on the ground and defining it in any rigid way actually restricts and retards the progress.”

10:53 HELEN TURVEY: The thing that I would want to argue is that we shouldn’t be defining how the funds are allocated at all, whether it’s for general resources or whether it’s for something else. The point is that we as a funder don’t know. We don’t know what is important on the ground and defining it in any rigid way actually restricts and retards the progress. I think we think it’s about accountability, we think that we shouldn’t spend our money doing something terrible, and accountability is incredibly important.

But the lesson that I’ve learned is that one size doesn’t fit all. It’s much easier to understand but it really doesn’t work. The metrics that are defined tend to come from very far away from the solution. And it just doesn’t help and it’s not truthful to anybody in this relationship. The thing that we’ve found that works much better than anything else so far is by asking what metrics someone we work with and someone we fund are holding themselves to, and why they’re holding themselves to those particular metrics, and how those metrics change over time and what they’ve learned from them.

It’s not particularly comfortable, it’s not particularly fun but we do hold them to the metrics that they’ve said they’re holding themselves to. Not in a sense of saying, well you didn’t hit your number or whatever it was but in a sense of recalling it – this didn’t happen, what did we learn, how can we better go forward next time. But what that means is that we can learn in a bilateral manner. And it means that trust is actually built throughout that relationship. It actually becomes more honest. And then if we’re really honest, then I think what we can start to do is take the risks we’re going to need to take in philanthropy if we’re going to drive this – drive towards a better social to live in.

It’s certainly very apparent that doing what’s always been done isn’t going to be the solution anymore. So if we can’t have honest relationships, then I don’t think there’s any hope. But I do see some foundations out there starting to work more with people as opposed to fund people and make them dance.

13:21 CHRIS DELATORRE: To learn more about Helen’s work, visit and follow Shuttleworth Foundation on Twitter @ShuttleworthFdn. Helen Turvey, Executive Director of the Shuttleworth Foundation, thank you.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.