Key Opportunities

Oct. 4, 2021
Simply Secure

Written by Simply Secure and Ayana Byrd & Kenrya Rankin

Six years after the launch of Mozilla’s Open Web fellows program, the organization continues to pursue methods and processes that will allow the organization to make better use of its network of fellows and awardees to impact the internet health movement.

This evaluation details the ways in which the Mozilla Foundation F&A program enriches the lives of participants and contributes to the internet health and digital rights ecosystems. Alumni and staff spoke to the doors being opened, relationships being formed, and bridges to new work being built by the F&A program. Participants made art, wrote code, built tools, crafted curricula, and convened thinkers in the name of a healthier digital world.

At the same time, this evaluation demonstrates that the Mozilla Foundation has key opportunities to solidify and expand upon the F&A program’s contributions to the space. By unifying and clarifying how the F&A program is implementing the Foundation’s strategy at the executive, leadership, and program design levels, there is major potential to increase staff agency, provide staff clarity on how the program they are managing aligns with organizational strategy, and help the team as a whole define metrics and goals for impact measurement that are unified across programs. This clarity would also radiate externally to solidify Mozilla’s reputation within the internet health ecosystem, create clearer guidelines around the role of outside funders in program design, and enable alumni of the program to keep their work tied to Mozilla after their funding period ends.

Building off of the program’s key strengths – ecosystem development, staff reputation and expertise, convening and cohort building, iterative program improvement, and creative program design – the 12 key opportunities below summarize the takeaways of the evaluation and support this overarching call to increase strategic clarity. They are intended to capture the voices of the many Mozilla community members interviewed for this report and are paired with design responses to inspire creative interventions in program conception, structure, and design. Insights from the Impact Narrative carried out by Kenrya Rankin and Ayana Byrd also appear here to highlight where impact amplification and measurement are particularly ripe for further investment and work. The vibrancy and potential of the F&A program, its staff, and its participants deserves to be bolstered; the opportunities and responses below hope to support that goal.

Key separator.jpg

1. Strategically reinforce Mozilla’s theory of change within program design.

The F&A program and its impacts successfully address prongs of both Mozilla’s 2017 Movement Building Model and Theory of Change and its newer, 2019 Trustworthy AI Theory of Change. Without fully established tools, impact measurement resources, and overall frameworks, it is currently difficult to understand how the program is directly influencing some of the medium and long-term goals of both theories of change. The F&A program would benefit from an articulation of which programs work toward which theory of change and how. This would greatly aid the strategic clarity of the program’s work within the Foundation and establish clearer norms for making funding and program design decisions, benefitting staff and participants alike.

Possible design response:

Each F&A program is explicitly tied to aspects of either the Movement Building or Trustworthy AI theories of change, such that a fellowship or award can represent the theory of change in action. This could mean incubating indicators and determining metrics within the programs or tracing the trajectory of change from the beginning of an investment in an individual or project. In this way, the Foundation can empower those driving the change – the fellows or awardees developing the policies, advocacy, technology, art, research, etc – to help define metrics for longer-term understanding of how Mozilla’s work is shaping the field and advancing their strategic goals.

Impact Narrative insight:

Better align Mozilla’s organizational lines around its strategic goals for F&A. Building on the ideas set forth in the impact goal, Mozilla has the ability to define what goals it would like to see reached in the tech landscape over a certain time period. Then Mozilla can fundraise for programs that will help to achieve its goals and F&A can select fellows whose work also moves in that direction and adheres to organization-wide timelines. Strategically, all of the organizational lines will be in sync, including leadership, fundraising and program offices. “It’s all connected and it’s all moving in lockstep,” says a staffer. “I think what we’ve experienced in the past is a lot of those pieces moving at different speeds and in slightly different directions. And so it never feels aligned.”

2. Clarify Mozilla’s position and relationship to social and racial justice. This includes developing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy that can be applied across programs and addresses global perspectives and definitions of DEI.

Mozilla, across the Foundation and corporation, has a mixed history with social and racial justice. As Mozilla is developing a clearer movement strategy, increased clarity around the Foundation's goals and relationship to social and racial justice will help the F&A program in developing authentic partnerships in the ecosystem. Similarly, in lieu of a clearer overarching strategy around DEI, each program or program officer has been working to define DEI in the context of a specific program, selection strategy, or context (e.g. regional or programmatic, etc). Defining what aspects of DEI are a focus for Mozilla at large and Mozilla grantmaking in particular will allow for more transparency and consistency. This clarified approach could also be more openly shared, contributing to the field as a whole. Note: These issues are currently being addressed by Mozilla.

Possible design response:

Mozilla has the opportunity, as an organization with global programs and reach, to model context-dependent social and racial justice frameworks. Through funding and uplifting local knowledge and expertise and expanding the network of Mozilla fellows, awardees, staff people, and network allies that are committed to racial justice globally, the Foundation has the opportunity to co-develop a movement strategy that is representative of its global network.

3. Increase internal transparency and accessibility of resources program-wide

F&A staff have been relatively siloed within their programs, resulting in a feeling of reinventing the wheel when it comes to program design and offerings. Increased transparency and access program-wide to resources like discretionary funding (and/or flexible funding), communications and external presence support (e.g. websites), community management, and data and measurement support would reduce the time and resources spent by each program officer in navigating these decisions on their own in the context of a specific program, and developing ad-hoc solutions.

4. Review support structures and models to work toward a more unified framework of resources and support offered to all funding recipients.

Historically, the F&A programs have been defined in the specific opportunity context, but there have also been variations of the model over the years, which have led to a lack of clarity around differences in types of support. Reviewing and aligning this as broadly as possible will increase transparency amongst staff and funding recipients and could even be made public, where possible. Developing this framework in direct response to support needs identified by program alumni is also critical.

Possible design response:

Upon being awarded a grant or fellowship, all Mozilla funding recipients receive a basic support package. The package includes a clear delineation of resources (professional, educational, developmental, etc) and types of support (financial, press, mentorship, mental health, accounting, etc) available to the recipient during their funding period, and explicit expectations for what it means to be a Mozilla alum once their funding period ends. This package includes an initial assessment at the start of the funding period to establish an understanding of each individual fellow/awardee’s needs, as well as periodic assessments that can respond to recipients’ needs as they develop and settle into their project. Support can then be adaptive, which would help to address equity issues that have arisen over the years. The package can also outline what types of support are not provided at all, or if some types of support are for some recipients and not others, and why that is the case (such as in special funding partnerships).

Impact Narrative insight:

Lean further into the flexibility that is characteristic of the awards process. Becoming a Mozilla fellow is a lengthy endeavor and, in most programs, limited to a 10-month term. However, there is a nimbleness built into the awards mechanism that can contribute to Mozilla having timely, impactful responses to current, global events. This was exemplified in 2020 when the MOSS Program took just six weeks to execute the COVID-19 Solutions Fund that provided awards to open source technology projects that responded to the pandemic.

“There is a responsiveness with awards that’s not possible with fellowships.”

“If you have the AI Theory of Change, it’s easy to imagine that you could build a funding awards challenge, or an RFP, that’s very specific to one of those medium- or short-term outcomes.”

5. Consider the experience arc of the funding programs, especially fellowships, to account for support needed, post-funding opportunities, and network engagement.

A lack of support mechanisms and visibility into what supports are available to funding recipients is leading to an unnecessarily steep cliff after the funded Mozilla experience for both fellows and awardees. That cliff has historically been exacerbated by program length, as some participants felt the programs were too short for them to have made the impact they wanted to, whether on their own careers or with their project. Formalizing the alumni network, improving transparency around opportunities (e.g. additional grants, network opportunities, etc), and being more proactive about preparing recipients for the post-funding experience will help them remain in the internet health community, strengthen the ecosystem, and activate the potential of the Mozilla network.

Possible design response:

Fellowships are coordinated with the recipient to develop clear career trajectories and to facilitate off-boarding from before the funding period begins; a post-funding plan is baked into the experience from the beginning. Mozilla funding acts as a “bridge” and recipients develop a plan: where do I want to be in a year? Where do I want to be at the end of this phase? Mozilla facilitates placements and other networking opportunities to get the recipient to the next stage, solidifying them in the internet health/ tech and society space.

6. Define and communicate expectations of the programs more clearly, while leaving room for adapting and responding to emergent needs.

Most of the challenges surfaced by participants were ultimately the result of ambiguous communication, and could be remedied by clearer expectation setting. The hosted fellowship model, for example, is one major potential intervention point. Though the mutually-beneficial potential of the host organization relationship is huge, clearer and more structured expectation setting is key to unlocking its success.

Possible design response:

Mozilla supports funding recipients with more direct project management support, mentorship, and coaching. Stakeholders, including host organizations, encourage more regular check-ins for fellows and awardees, which are structured from the beginning into the grant agreement. Funders and stakeholders also urge Mozilla to more proactively provide project management resources for funding recipients to ensure that people can actually achieve what they propose in their application. This includes, in the example of hosted fellows, developing clear expectations in the form of a working agreement and “job description” within their host organization. Additionally, a shared project management framework could help support all fellows in a cohort with process, documentation, and accountability checks. Managing expectations at the onset of funding would empower the recipient to negotiate and know what is possible during their funding period.

Impact Narrative insight:

Simplify the process by which projects are selected. As Mozilla continues to fund projects that align with its Theory of Change, the organization is able to choose an outcome (whether long- or short-term) and then select fellows or grantees who can achieve it. Yet to make this an operational success—as opposed to a theoretical goal—it will be necessary to better structure the open call windows so applicants know what outcomes and themes Mozilla is pursuing in its next round of funding so they can propose the most innovative projects toward these goals. Right now our open windows are very ad hoc and so there’s no way for people to predict that and plan for applying to fellowships and awards,” says a staffer.

7. Amplify visibility of the role of the fellows and awards programs in the ecosystem, rather than spotlighting individuals.

There is widespread belief among funders, staff, funding recipients, and stakeholders that the Foundation has a real opportunity to highlight the F&A programs themselves, as opposed to focusing on specific individuals or projects. They agreed that the real power of Mozilla’s programs lies in the untapped potential of the Mozilla network. There is a strong opportunity to reinforce the overall strategy and design of the programs in developing leaders and key interventions by acknowledging the role of the programs in creating those networks and opportunities. The F&A program, in this way, has the potential to tell a coherent story of both its work and its network.

8. Leverage the relationships Mozilla has built over the last five+ years of programming to develop a network-based model of impact measurement for the ecosystem.

The F&A programs over the last five years have played a crucial role in contributing to the development of the public interest technology ecosystem and the internet health movement, and everyone agrees there has been important and significant impact – but it is not easy to measure. Mozilla has an opportunity to lead the ecosystem in this effort and help develop metrics that the field can use to understand how the field is expanding and developing as a network of networks and movement of movements. Such an effort would both clarify Mozilla’s impact on the field and strategically contribute to Mozilla’s internet health goals by improving the capacity for collaboration and knowledge sharing within the field.

Possible design response:

While Mozilla shares its strategic goals and works openly already, the Foundation has an opportunity to more clearly draw a line between the work of the F&A programs and its participants, and those overarching, organizational objectives. This hinges on increasing visibility of and accessibility to the work of F&A recipients. Accessibility of F&A program strategy work and participant work can act as institutional memory – an archive of Mozilla Foundation contributions. This improvement upon and more public sharing of knowledge could be an ecosystem catalyst -- other kindred foundations and organizations can establish an information-sharing structure that enables greater iteration and innovation for the field. Examples of key outputs include: an in-depth maintained public-facing F&A project database, public speaking and writing about the program design and outputs, funder advocacy around the program design strategies and what they should learn from them, and a “ripple map” that tracks the programs’ influence on individuals and the network.

9. Invest in developing, maintaining and supporting a network, inclusive of alumni and key partners/stakeholders, to help fuel the movement and support past participants.

Where previously the idea of an alumni network has had a specific focus on fellows, there is an opportunity for the network to be a broad group of stakeholders who can help inform programs, strategy, and overall priorities and give insights on the space as a whole. By deepening relationships across fellows, awards, host organizations and mentors, Mozilla can leverage all of these partnerships to run a more sustainably engaged, global program. This means the network can be more than just a place to share events and job opportunities, but can be the grounding framework for the movement as a whole. MozFest was largely cited as a microcosm of the kind of energy this network could capture.

Possible design response:

Mozilla invests in a staff person whose responsibility is to design and steward the Mozilla alumni network. This investment would enable visibility into longer-term impacts of the F&A work, keep participants tied to Mozilla, facilitate alumni ambassadorship of the program, and open opportunities for alumni mentorship. Additionally, there could be expectations and/or obligations for F&A alumni baked into the fellowship or award agreement. This could include continuing appearances or engagements, mentorship to incoming cohorts, or membership in an alumni group. There was broad interest from program alumni to utilize alums as mentors to incoming fellows.

Impact Narrative insight:

Establishing an alumni network would amplify the impact of the F&A program by allowing funding recipients to grow their personal brands and build connections. Beyond these benefits, an alumni network could also positively impact the ethical AI movement by: 1) enabling Mozilla to harness the power of its alumni philanthropically by giving each former fellow access to a sum of money that they could grant to individual or organizations doing movement work that they have identified as significant; 2) putting in place, under the structural umbrella of an alumni network, a program that facilitates former fellows serving as mentors to current ones (says a former fellow, “The people who organize the fellowship bring together a mesh of backgrounds and lived experiences in different demographics and different regions of the world in such a way that the fellows can really learn from each other in addition to being heads down doing their own work.”); and 3) allowing Mozilla to tap into the expertise of an assembled group of fellows and once their cohort has ended, be able to use the brain trust to become better aligned as an organization in various human and civil rights movements.

As Mozilla considers how to best structure an alumni network, it should also assess where such a network would live: in F&A, in various other departments or as its own entity? Says one Foundation staffer:

“There’s always been an assumption that some kind of alumni program would help, but maybe that’s not the right model. Maybe if MozFest is the holder of community, or the policy team is the holder of our policy work, we look at how you nurture and pass off those relationships to other parts of Mozilla after the person’s done their act of fellowship and award.”

10. Empower foundation staff to collaborate with and proactively guide the fellows and awardees so that everyone benefits from the unique opportunity that the funding relationship creates.

The F&A staff have had inconsistent approaches with fellowships and awards in particular due to a lack of clarity on how much direction they can offer and differences in the implementation models, but this undervalues the existing Mozilla network and the staff expertise in the space. Staff and fellows especially have the opportunity to fundamentally inform each other’s work -- building collaboration into the program model can create a clearer expectation of how all parties involved (the Foundation, fellows, awardees, host organizations) can learn and benefit from each other, and contribute to longer term partnerships and overall network value.

Possible design response:

Mozilla invests in the subject matter expertise of the Foundation staff and/or encourages them to specialize. This would empower staff to be thought partners for recipients, and would help clarify the strategic alignment of recipients’ work. Simultaneously, subject- or affinity-based alumni mentorship is built into the F&A program, responsive to recipients’ support needs and desires.

Impact Narrative insight:

Clarify the identity of the F&A team. After four years as a unified team, many staffers feel that fellowships and awards operate as two parallel paths without frequent integration. There has been discussion about a number of ways to address this, including: 1) renaming the department something that does not distinguish between fellowships and awards, but, says a staffer, “gets at a singular identity,” 2) empowering staffers in the department to have the ability to choose which tool—a fellowship or an award—they want to use to best meet a desired need or outcome, as opposed to the current model where they work with fellowships or awards; and 3) determining whether these teams belong together at all. Says a Foundation staffer:

“If we want to have long-term change on internet health, it makes sense to have two different avenues and to invest in them in different ways. But maybe we need to be clearer that these are two different things—and be willing to have the conversation about how they’re different and how we can leverage the differences between them more effectively.”

11. Recognize and leverage Mozilla’s unique contribution to the ecosystem, which is seen in its unique frame around internet health as grounded in technical and social knowledge, practiced in the open across diverse sectors.

Mozilla brings a hands-on, working-in-the-open, and grounded “making” approach that is seen as unique, inherently technology- and community-powered, and nostalgic of the early internet ethos. The Mozilla brand, as it relates to this open internet cultural movement should be embraced when expanding into new trends and topics, such as AI.

Impact Narrative insights:
  • Clearly articulate Mozilla’s role as a grant and fellowship funder in the internet health movement. As the organization continues to develop its F&A program and fine tune its strategies in regard to the Theory of Change, some staffers believe there has been a loss of identity. “Are we a think tank who’s working with a very elite group of researchers and thinkers or are we using our funding to solve problems in the real world in a way that non-experts can engage in?” asks one. By choosing one of these options—and using the appropriate models for attracting and selecting fellows and awardees (think open calls versus extensive application processes)—Mozilla will be better positioned to fund work that is more closely aligned with its organizational identity.

  • Focus more on the intersection of art and technology. Through the Creative Media Awards, Mozilla is able to identify and support artists who use their medium to show how technology influences daily life and politics. Their approaches have proven to be some of the fastest and most demonstrative ways to enlighten the public about the necessity for trustworthy AI. Consequently, it is an area in which Mozilla can clearly impact the internet health movement in a way that aligns with its AI Theory of Change. “I think doing more awards or fellowships for artists in the zone of the work we’re focused on in AI is promising,” says a staffer.

12. Improve public facing data and information about past fellows and awardees through a people and projects database.

Across the board stakeholders were interested to be able to see more about past fellows and awardees in a more unified and easy-to-navigate way. This would allow current and future participants to see what successful projects look like, enable collaboration and continued partnership amongst alumni, and allow for broader visibility into the movement and the extent of the network that exists.

Possible design response:

As Mozilla internally develops data governance that is adaptable and stable, a public-facing repository of F&A work is developed concurrently, with a model that can be easily updated. The repository would house information on participants and projects, strategic developments, funding sources and opportunities, and alumni work.

The Mozilla Foundation Fellowships and Awards are essential within the digital rights ecosystem. By internalizing and working to creatively respond to these key opportunities, the Foundation faces an exciting moment, where it can take the reflections of program participants and the learnings of this evaluation and build a more strategically focused, supportive, and communicative set of programs. These key opportunities and design interventions respond to the findings of our evaluation and work to situate Mozilla and the F&A program more powerfully on the side of program participants and the future of a healthy internet.