Management Response

Oct. 4, 2021

Written by Ayana Byrd & Kenrya Rankin

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In November 2019, J. Bob Alotta, former executive director of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, joined Mozilla Foundation to serve as vice president of Global Programs. Bob recruited Hanan Elmasu, a human rights lawyer with a background in philanthropy focused on technology and activism, to the organization in August 2020 to be director of the Fellowships and Awards program. Both have backgrounds in activism and leading human rights initiatives that acknowledge how critical internet freedom is to building and sustaining movements. In their short time with the Foundation, they have begun shifting and clarifying strategy to align with the organization's AI Theory of Change and movement building strategy. Alotta and Elmasu also commissioned an impact evaluation of the Fellowships and Awards program’s operations from the beginning of 2016 to mid-2020 to see where it was—and where it could go. Here, they discuss the report and how it will help advance the Foundation’s work.

Why did you decide to commission an evaluation of the Fellowship and Awards program’s impact?

J. Bob Alotta: I was tasked with operationalizing Mozilla’s movement building strategy globally, and grantmaking and fellowships are incredibly impactful tools in that toolbox. Our programmatic work has the potential to leverage significant power and impact, and it’s really important to not just reinvent the wheel. So first, this evaluation is a way to concretize and canonize the excellent work of Fellowships and Awards to date. Second, it is a way to validate decision making. We’re committed to openness, and this helps us to learn and iterate and pivot accordingly. It underscores changes we’ve already put in place, and it gives us solid ground to stand on as we move forward.

What do you want people to learn when they read this evaluation?

J. Bob Alotta: A lot of really good work happened. There are incredible fellows, there are incredible grantee partners, there were incredible grants made. Also, these years really reflect the fact that the Foundation was finding itself. There was experimentation, the way tech entities do. Much less so in the world of philanthropy. It wasn’t a traditional foundation making grants, it was a tech company figuring out how to be a foundation, and it was learning how to express its philanthropic identity while doing so. So we’re honoring and learning from the past. There’s a lot of goodness to bring forward—we’re bringing along folks and adding new people into the mix to grow the F&A team, as well as Global Programs. We are ready to press go on this work. Our commitment is unwavering.

Hanan Elmasu: I also hope people see the door that’s opening. It’s a point in time that we’re assessing and that has passed, but we’re building on it. That means seeing the things that work and the things that didn’t work. What we’re doing now is taking all of those things and learning and growing from them. This evaluation is part of an infrastructure we’re creating to build toward the future.

What does that future look like?

Hanan Elmasu: Mozilla’s F&A future will include a group of really amazing individuals who are aligned with our values around transparency, bias and building movements and working in this open way with organizations that share a similar focus. In terms of building community and creating space, our role is to populate that space with more brilliance.

But that brilliance needs to be supported to thrive, and our future will reflect that. The evaluation highlighted some really important operational gaps that we knew existed; we’re building an accompaniment strategy that ensures our community is better connected and equipped to tackle big issues. We’re designing and resourcing an alumni program to provide continued support and connection post fellowships and awards. We’re also adding additional technical expertise to our team and hiring a communications officer to tell the story of our work in different ways and more places, and to support fellows and awardees as they do the same. We’re thinking through how we can support learning across our field to work more collaboratively for greater impact and to partner across different movements. And we’re updating our strategy to ensure that our values are reflected in all of our decision making.

J. Bob Alotta: We're really committed to interoperability, both methodologically and programmatically. The Data Futures Lab is a good example of that. It centers around networks of practice and employs a cohort model for the grantee partners. And to Hanan's point, while we're still bringing on individual fellows, we're really looking at them as a cohort, regardless of the kind of fellowship. Which means we’re envisioning wraparound support and peer communities for learning and growth. It also means we’ll take stock of how their work interacts and intersects with Mozilla’s Theory of Change and our specific organizational goals and commitments.

Mozilla is committed to upending current mechanisms of data extraction; and the technical, regulatory and cultural structures that promote bias; or obfuscate transparency in an effort to actualize AI that is trustworthy. We are also committed to doing so with partners across movements and across geographies. So we are making investments in our own organization, in our data infrastructure, and in our programs that reflect these commitments and to hopefully have immediate, medium-term and long-term impact.We’re asking questions like: How do hosted fellows serve as a bridge between Mozilla and its strategic goals? What does it mean for fellows to be embedded in civil society organizations whose primary mission isn’t necessarily digital freedom or internet freedom, but other social justice movements—and how do we support those fellows as the organizers they are? And then how do we look at host orgs as the key grassroots players in the fields in which they work?

The idea is to adopt a grassroots-to-grasstop strategy that’s enduring and impactful, so that when we do this evaluation five years from now, we can say, “We’re moving in the right direction, and it’s synchronized and choreographed in a way that’s meaningful. Furthermore we’re actually leveraging our power in a way that mitigates the imbalance of power.” We’re also building the infrastructure to recognize when we’re not moving in the right direction—and we have the tools to course correct.

In addition to just making a grant, we are also answering the question: what does it mean to make a Mozilla grant? In addition to receiving a fellowship, what does it mean to receive a Mozilla fellowship? And how do you benefit from our unique place in the ecosystem, our role as both a foundation and a company? We don’t just make grants and give fellowships, we convene, have MozFest, produce research and analysis, do advocacy and campaigns, and have a robust comms department. So, how do grantee partners and fellows really benefit from that?

What is one immediate shift you're making as a result of the evaluation findings?

J. Bob Alotta: The analysis underscored the need to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy that can be applied across programs and addresses global perspectives and definitions of DEI. We’re not looking at that as a standalone or a 2020-fueled commitment—we’re asking, “What does that look like in the context of our work in an enduring way that will induce the long-term investments we should be making in grantee partners and people?” Even the language of DEI is very North American, so how do we actually embed into our strategic vision a change that is meaningful in different geographies? It must be an approach that will honor and center local people, talent, issues and engagement.

Hanan Elmasu: This has really shown up in our emerging strategy as an anchor for our theory of change and how we approach all of our work. We're centring our decision making within some key principles: recognizing the complexity of movements and geographic issues; integrating open source practice as both a movement and approach; using the human rights framework as a powerful approach to guide our interactions; a commitment to community justice, including where and how inequality manifests globally; a longer term commitment to a healthy, open internet in our philanthropic work; and incorporating an intersectional approach. These principles are reflected in the recent recruitment for 2022 senior fellows, and they anchor new technical funding streams and future phases of programs like the Responsible Computer Science Challenge.

The evaluation shows that while there are a number of good things happening in the organization, there is still a lot of work to be done. What do you find most exciting about this moment in time for the F&A program at Mozilla?

J. Bob Alotta: The report talks about the nascency of our relationships with institutions and fellows, but now they’re actually matured—they’re longstanding relationships, they’re longstanding bodies of work. So, we get to catalyze those relationships to build an even stronger presence in the field. We now have clarity of purpose in a way that, by virtue of it being an experimental beginning, we didn’t previously have. And we have a strategy and institution rallying behind this. It’s not just the Fellowships and Awards team, every team at Mozilla is rallied around the same theory of change. We’re leveraging each other’s superpowers to meet those ends and to clarify opportunities and avenues for engagement. And that can only benefit the folks on the ground with whom we’re grantmaking and the fellows with whom we’re working.

Hanan Elmasu: The excitement for me is around the fact that there was this metamorphosis over the last five years, and we’re now at a really opportune moment to emerge from our chrysalis with all of this amazing stuff. We now have this evaluation as a body of work. And it’s supporting us to create the infrastructure needed to continue to learn and grow as a grantmaker. Also, I think the world is also more ready for us than it was five years ago. Things were very different then when it came to digital rights. Nobody knew what that meant then, but now there’s a real understanding of what it means to not have internet; what it means to have an internet shutdown; what it means to have your voice silenced on digital platforms.

J. Bob Alotta: Yes! Plus, we’re here! We’re doubling down on our investment and our commitment. We already see what happens if we don’t strategically invest in this work. How many democracies are tenuous at this stage because of unfree and unsafe and unstable internet and access? I’m excited that we get to work toward making that secure while in true partnership with so many other movements and players in the field and rogue brilliant actors. There’s so many more people who we’re going to get to work with and whose work will be out in the world because we have a clear and committed path toward investing in them and partnering with them and learning from them, and changing who we are as a result of those relationships. I mean, that’s pretty exciting.

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