The Evolution of the F&A Funding Strategy

Oct. 4, 2021

Written by Ayana Byrd & Kenrya Rankin

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Currently, the funding strategy seeks to align with Mozilla Foundation’s Trustworthy AI Theory of Change, which aims to develop artificial intelligence that is “demonstrably worthy of trust,” laddering up to consumer tech that “considers accountability, agency, and individual and collective well-being,” per 2020’s “Creating Trustworthy AI.” As one Foundation staffer said,

“We’re looking for people who have ideas, whether they’re individuals or groups, that advance some aspect of that overall Theory of Change in things that could be done.”

But that hasn’t always been the guiding star for F&A; the below section outlines the evolving strategic frames for Mozilla’s work in fellowships and awards.

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There have been three fellowship funding models over the life of the program, and all three are still currently employed to varying degrees: 1) funding embedded fellows, 2) funding fellows’ individual projects and 3) funding senior fellows (also known as fellows-in-residence).

As detailed in the origin story, the fellowships program started with embedding technologists at organizations in 2011 to challenge them to advance how they think about technology and its relationship to civil society, and to reimagine their role in evolving their industries. At their core, these pairings represented Mozilla’s dedication to equipping institutions with a new lens and pushing them into a new age, while also supporting the fellows’ career development and providing opportunities for knowledge sharing, which shed light on how advocacy worked in various sectors on a practical level.

By 2017, leadership development became the guiding principle, and picking fellows became more about investing in individuals. So the team worked to find people with expertise and big ideas, give them the resources to support potentially groundbreaking independent work, build their individual brands and amplify their voices in the field. The fellows increasingly operated independent of organizations. That year’s formation of the Tech Policy Fellows program—which sought legal, academic and governmental solutions to the issues that arise at the intersection of technology and public policy—is a good example of this. The program aimed to capture people who’d left at the end of the Obama administration and put them to work in the civil society sector.

“If previously we were working with technologists to help civil society, now we were working with people who had that policy background to help technologists better understand how policy is formed”

F&A Staffer

Those we talked to said the result was that the fellowship program attracted a lot of strong applicants—but it lost track of its own end goal and became “a bit agnostic” about which spaces it worked in. As a staffer said:

In the beginning, it was about strengthening civil society’s understanding of technology. But at that point we then changed and our messaging was very much about leadership development, building a cohort who would go on to sit in the intersection between technology and civil society and be leaders on their own. And the messaging was lost.”

And then there’s the fellows themselves. A lot of those who received funding for individual projects were more researchers than mobilizers. So while they did great work, they weren’t necessarily poised to advance movements. And working independently—rather than with organizations—didn’t help on that front.

Then came a third model, where more experienced fellows were embedded with organizations, given leadership roles and charged with guiding programs, including Responsible Computer Science (launched in 2018), Open Internet Engineering (2019) and Data Futures Lab (2020). These senior fellows already enjoy a high profile in their sector. In addition to innovating, these pioneers help the program team understand the field, shape F&A’s funding strategy and identify and fund a cohort of earlier career fellows to help deepen the work.

Some staffers shared that, for many years, it appeared the only internal guiding metric for the fellowships program was growth—seeking to add more fellows to the program year over year rather than focusing on the change the program was making in the world. They observed that, if applied intentionally, the pivot to using the Trustworthy AI Theory of Change to steer the funding strategy ship could represent a course correction.

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The funding strategy for awards is in many ways inseverable from that of the fellowship program. As one staffer put it: “If the fellowship is a mechanism to explore new space, then the awards are a way to really put money into that field.”

In the early days of awards, when Mozilla was still shaping its philanthropic voice and external funders provided the bulk of funding, staffers say the organization took more of an execution role rather than that of an emboldened strategic partner with the skills to implement a shared strategic vision.

“From the 2011 foundation of the fellowships in the beginning through to the emergence of the movement building strategy in 2016, almost all of our fellowships and awards, the metrics of what we did and the success criteria were driven by the outside foundations. We didn’t do stuff we didn’t think was aligned with our mission, but we were a delivery agency.”

While that is optimum for entering funding arrangements with clearly defined metrics for impact, it’s not ideal for adhering to an overarching strategic vision for what programs are funded. The result is that the guiding forces of the early awards programs were a moving target, which means that the types of awardees—and the work they have completed—have shifted considerably over the years. It also means that for long-term projects, by the time the program comes to an end, the previously desired impact is sometimes no longer aligned with Mozilla’s mission. And staffers say that is a divergence that is more pronounced with the awardees than the fellows.

“We’ve been fairly intentional about the process evolution for fellowships, even if not rigorous. I don’t think we’ve had the freedom and intention to do that same kind of innovation and mechanisms with awards because they tended to be outside money and fairly directed in how they would be structured. But I think the intention of opening up new fields—like the whole idea of ethical computer science curriculum—is much more interesting.”

“I think we had a tendency to jump at any opportunity we saw that was a good partnership and aligned enough, but also that would bring funds into the organization. Over time, we ended up with this island of misfit toys where there were a bunch of programs that didn’t necessarily fit together, where it was hard to really tell a consistent story about what they all were. I think with the impact goal we’ve gotten better about that and what I hope we’re moving toward the opposite, where we have an idea, we know what we want to do, we know the impact we want to have, and we go out and we fundraise against that. Responsible Computer Science is close to that, in the sense that we’ve managed to corral a bunch of funders around a single vision. I hope that’s more of the direction that we’re heading in for awards.”

But all wasn’t lost. The early awards investment strategy was instrumental in laying the groundwork for later F&A programming. To wit: the investment in Hive Learning Networks (beginning in 2011) centered award’s talent for community and cohort building. These city-wide labs aimed to support educators, technologies and mentors engaged in design learning around education. The same goes for the Gigabit Community Fund (beginning in 2014), which not only gave organizations small grants, but also employed a cohort structure that gave them a community that amplified the impact of the work. This laid the groundwork for programs like Data Futures Lab (2020), where grantees and fellows work as a cohort.

"That really crystallized this idea that Mozilla isn't just giving money out into the world. We're giving money to folks to become part of a community. I think that really springs out of the Hives and has infiltrated, in some way, all of our philanthropic work subsequent to that initiative.”

Another defining characteristic of the awards program is its ability to be nimble and responsive to the landscape. The faster turnaround time for executing awards has allowed it to experiment and dip into a range of topics that ultimately informed the Foundation’s F&A initiatives. Even while operating without a bright north star, awards programs have tended to center technology over policy, which staffers say helps to bridge Mozilla’s transparency in tech origins with the current focus on AI. Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society (WINS)—launched in 2018 to uncover solutions that enhance wireless connectivity— is a good example of this.

"If you take something like WINS which was specifically focused on accessibility, it sort of helped Mozilla to figure out if we wanted to focus on accessibility or if we didn't. But it also required projects to be open source. So it has that tie back into Mozilla’s history, which feels important in our grantmaking and in the way we exist in the world.”

Following the divestment in the Hives program in 2017, there was a shift to funding individual grantees rather than organizations. Along with that shift came a moment where the future of awards was unclear. The result was a stalling of the momentum that had taken shape during the Hives and Gigabit years.

"There was a real sort of crisis moment of wondering whether we were going to continue to fund awards at all. If we were going to do any sort of grantmaking, or if we were just going to focus entirely on fellowships. And so we weren’t able to sustain that momentum and continue to build out awards programs for quite some time.”

The creation of the Responsible Computer Science Challenge in 2018 marked Mozilla’s reentry into the grantmaking space. Funded and initiated by Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures, and others, the $3.5 million award sought to integrate ethics into undergraduate computer science curricula nationwide. Notably, it was the first awards program to emerge after Mozilla developed an organization-wide strategy. It illustrates the maturation of awards as the team worked with funders to create a strategy-aligned program.

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