Building a Toolkit for Funders to Grow their Digital Infrastructure Portfolio

  • Despite a pressing need for committed and sustained support, the foundational digital infrastructure that underpins much of the world’s software is currently maintained by small and underpaid (or volunteer-based) teams.
  • As part of the Digital Infrastructure Grant, our team is partnering with Superrr Lab and nine regional partners to design and create the Digital Infrastructure Funders Toolkit – a global resource to help funders understand the importance of digital infrastructure support and make more impactful funding decisions in the space. Toolkit will be available in 2022.
  • The ongoing project builds upon our prior partnership with Superrr Lab, Roadwork Ahead, which produced key insights and recommendations for funders and potential funders in the digital infrastructure community.

Just like physical roads and bridges, the digital infrastructure that we all rely on can – and will – crumble without committed and sustained support. In 2014 the Heartbleed vulnerability brought this stark reality into focus for millions of people across the globe. Yet still today, the teams that build and maintain the foundational free and open-source software (FOSS) that underpins much of our online world remain small and underpaid (and are often volunteer-based). Fortunately, several civil society funders are now working to change that – led by the Ford Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who came together in 2018 to “build toward a more diverse and well-funded ecosystem for critical digital infrastructure.” As part of that effort, Simply Secure partnered with Superrr Lab on Roadwork Ahead, an investigation into the needs of FOSS communities working on digital infrastructure in the public interest. The resulting June 2020 report shared 10 key insights and 30 recommendations for funders operating or seeking to operate in this space.

This year, a coalition of funders is putting $1.3 million toward the Digital Infrastructure Grant, and we are once again partnering with Superrr Lab – this time to make the Roadwork Ahead recommendations actionable via the design and creation of a Digital Infrastructure Funders Toolkit, to be published in Q1 2022.  Below, we share our approach to the ongoing project, including identifying funder personas, creating an inclusive geographic scope, and maximizing meaningful funder engagement.

Identifying funder personas

Our primary audience for the Toolkit is funders who are interested in supporting digital infrastructure but who are not currently operating or well-connected in the specific space. The Toolkit’s resources can help provide critical guidance and support to help these funders enter this unique – and essential – community of practice. Our secondary audience is funders who are currently supporting digital infrastructure that would like to improve and streamline their model, process, or approach (including, but not limited to, the funders supporting the Toolkit effort).

These two target audiences can be categorized into four different personas to help identify their specific needs:

  • The Tech Enthusiast
  • The Innovative Philanthropist
  • The Compassionate Change-maker 
  • The Social Advocate 

THE TECH ENTHUSIAST

Type of funding organization: Funders with a digital profile but limited experience in funding digital infrastructure. They have strong technical expertise and usually tend to see technology as a key catalyst to almost every problem-solving formula.

Funding needs: A mechanism and/or framework for funding digital infrastructure that works across the globe. 

THE INNOVATIVE PHILANTHROPIST

Type of funding organization: Funders from non-tech sectors who are interested in funding technology and digital infrastructure as aligned with their mission. They have little to no prior experience in funding technology, and very little technical expertise. They employ a systemic approach to funding.

Funding needs: A way to apply their funding knowledge to the digital infrastructure space. They would benefit from a beginner-friendly entrance to the technology funding world, a framework to fund digital infrastructure, and a connection to the FOSS community. 

THE COMPASSIONATE CHANGE-MAKER 

Type of funding organization: Established funders of technology and digital infrastructure.

They have strong technical expertise and a funding approach that is often grounded in the community’s needs.

Funding needs: A streamlined mechanism and framework for funding digital infrastructure so that they can support a wider range of projects. 

THE SOCIAL ADVOCATE

Type of funding organization: Funders who have technology and digital infrastructure as part of their programs but aren’t necessarily well-connected with the FOSS community. They often advocate for positive social changes that can be enabled by technology, but don’t focus on the open source community.

Funding needs: A way of communicating with the community in order to establish a suitable funding mechanism. 

Designing a Toolkit for current and potential funders of digital infrastructure

The basic approach of the Digital Infrastructure Funders Toolkit is rooted in a human-centered design (HCD) process that generates actionable insights based on research and active experimentation. Through interviews, focus groups, and testing, the Toolkit will be iteratively designed and implemented. This HCD approach allows us to engage funders, applicants, and advisors, and improve the relationship between these stakeholders that shape the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

Funders that offer better funding models and center the people that are supporting the infrastructure will make better funding decisions. When implemented, the types of changes proposed in the Toolkit will significantly impact the sustainability of open source and foundational software, keep standards and protocols interoperable and up-to-date, and create a more resilient and secure digital infrastructure. Through our Toolkit, it is our hope that more funders will realize the relevance of digital infrastructure to their cause and express their interest in funding this area. 

Creating an inclusive geographic scope

In building out a global resource like the Toolkit, it’s important to acknowledge that regions, languages, and governments articulate and understand “infrastructure” in very different ways. That’s why we’re incorporating a regional team of non-US/non-EU researchers to help ensure we capture and share these nuances, and offer a more global understanding of the needs, wants, and opportunities in service to this work. We’ve partnered with nine individuals and organizations connected with their local funders to help us build localized tools and translate the Toolkits. Our partners are reaching out to funders in cities, countries, and regions with both nascent and developed digital rights and FOSS communities. 

Engaging with Funders: Show not Tell 

To help funders connect digital infrastructure with their mission-critical social issues, we’re creating a set of narratives that show how digital infrastructure is core to issues like environmental sustainability, healthy democracies, and freedom of speech. These story-based narratives will help convey the relevance of digital infrastructure in a way that is easy for non-technical audiences to understand, while also sharing pictures and illustrations for social media and online content.

Through our testing and outreach, funding partners will be able to develop a robust understanding of digital infrastructure, and create or iterate on their own framework for funding. The structured guidance and support we will create through the Toolkit will allow funders to work with grantees to develop an effective funding model that works for all parties. This will especially benefit funders that are new to supporting infrastructure projects, which in turn can lower barriers to entry and lead to more funding opportunities for this sector.

Credits

Regional Partners, including:

With support from the funders of the Digital Infrastructure Fund.

Related

Inverting Power Imbalances in the Peer Review Process with PREreview

For the past two years, we’ve been working with PREreview to promote equity in academic publishing by helping to build a new open source platform that supports a more inclusive, community-oriented form of peer review and publication.

Trust & User Needs

Meeting users' needs is an authentic way to contribute to developing trust. Eileen and Molly discuss in this episode of Tea Time.

Trust & Transparency

When you're transparent in your communication with users, you're communicating your trustworthiness. Eileen and Molly discuss trust and transparency in this episode of Tea Time.