Technology Salon


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How Should Funders Support the COVID-19 Digital Response?

Our sixth virtual Salon in the “Tech in the Time of Coronavirus” series revolved around the role of funders in the COVID-19 digital response. The pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities in our economic models and systems.

As we look to the future and strive to build a world that is more resilient, funders have an important role to play in coordinating resource flows and articulating clear visions. This Salon focuses on big questions and ideas around creating tomorrow’s economic models and systems, and on how funders fit into this effort.


Report Back from the Salon

by Daniel Ramirez-Raftree, Acceleration Group and Linda Raftree, Independent Consultant and New York City Tech Salon Convener

At our June 4th Salon, focused on how funders can support the COVID-19 digital response, we heard from five experts:

  • Nancy MacPherson, Independent Consultant and Former Director of Evaluation at The Rockefeller Foundation
  • Sudhir Tiwari, Managing Director, ThoughtWorks India
  • Sunita Grote, Deputy, UNICEF Ventures, and Innovation Fund Manager
  • Michael Jarvis, Executive Director, Transparency and Accountability Initiative
  • Lina Srivastava, Founder of Creative Impact and Experience Lab (CIEL) and entrepreneur-in-residence for GenderAvenger

Nancy MacPherson, Independent Consultant and Former Director of Evaluation at The Rockefeller Foundation

Nancy has sat on all sides of the funding table, In her presentation, she posed questions about how we should think about moving to new economic models.

Our global community is part of a big system, and clearly that system has let us down. So what do we need to step up to now? Whatever it is, it can’t be business as usual for either those funding or those implementing.

Data and tech are part of a global marketplace. Though most of us don’t pay close attention to the risk models that underpin our marketplace, if you follow these models, you’ll see that COVID-19 is a low-probability / high-consequence event. And now that it’s happened, here we are with too few resilience plans, inadequate safety nets, and a shameful lack of leadership.

The pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities of our global economies and our just-in-time supply chains. While our marketplace has embraced the concept of resilience, it has not practiced resilience. And we all must take this into account and think about the new market systems and business models we need.

We can and should be outraged and protest, but this is also moment for funders and providers to be crystal clear and articulate about what it is they want.

We need new models, a new economy, and a new fiscal system, and both funders and providers need a voice in this. This means that we must have a clear idea of the paradigms, ideologies, and theories that underlie the kind of market system that we want. 

Thus far, funders of COVID relief efforts have not been terribly explicit about the frameworks that structure what they do. They get proposals that don’t seem to pitch anything other than what the proposing organizations usually do anyway, and they decide not to fund them. So how do we create a better bridge between what it is that funders are asking for and what it is that people are applying with? To get better results, we need to find a way to help our communities frame proposals.

Finally, we know that the pandemic will undoubtedly transform our societies, and tech will be big winners in this, make no mistake. A vaccine that doesn’t exist yet has been capitalized to trillions and trillions of dollars, and there will be a market. Along with that market comes the question of how to make this a public good. What will we do to address this question?

Technology pools, data trusts, a vision for a new multilateralism…? We’ve done this before, and soon it will come time to do it again.

Sudhir Tawari, Managing Director, ThoughtWorks India

Sudhir centered his presentation on his experiences at ThoughtWorks as it addressed COVID in India. He covered three main points:

  • Partnerships and Ecosystems
  • Launching Interventions and Creating Maximum Impact
  • Principles of Execution 

Partnerships and Ecosystems

Ecosystems are composed of organizations, funding agencies, corporations, and government agencies that work together toward common goals. Building strong ecosystems is very important because they are in the best position to respond to crises. Crises ask us to pivot quickly, and ecosystems can do this because they have more resources and capabilities than single organizations.

Ecosystem development is an ongoing investment with the aim of having the ecosystem already in place when it is needed. There are three ingredients that are crucial to strong ecosystems:

  • Partners with complementary strengths
  • Similar beliefs about the what the right solutions are and how the crisis should be tackled
  • Cultural alignment among the players in the ecosystem

Partners with complementary strengths help each other execute more effectively and aligned partners don’t second-guess each other as frequently. These qualities make ecosystems more effective when it comes time to respond to crises.

Launching Interventions and Creating Maximum Impact

The key insight here is to launch interventions that are appropriate to the needs of the moment. And a useful framework for thinking about this is to identify in which day of the crisis we are.

  • Day 0 is the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Everyone is responding and there is a lot of chaos on the ground because no one knows exactly what needs to be done.
  • Day 1 is when things start settling down and you’re in a position to see which ideas actually work. This is when you start realizing the impact of what people are putting out. 
  • Day 2 is when you start building for the future and the resilience work needs to begin.

It is up to you to recognize which phase is most appropriate for your organization. And when you see that your competencies are relevant, find a way to apply them.

Finally Sudhir outlined three principles of execution:

  1. Invest in and prioritize those organizations that are in it for the long haul.
  2. Invest in innovation and products over ideas and projects.
  3. Technology is an enabler, not the final solution, and we need to keep this in mind.

Sunita Grote, Deputy, UNICEF Ventures, and Innovation Fund Manager

UNICEF Ventures is a venture fund that provides seed funding to startups that operate in the countries in which UNICEF works. Sunita shared some of her experiences with the fund and spoke about the ways COVID has affected what they fund and how they fund. 

First of all, when it comes to what they fund, UNICEF hasn’t changed their direction. They’re not looking at drastically switching resources from one course to another. Rather than moving away from the core investment areas they’ve always found crucial, the situation has highlighted particular needs where they want to accelerate the work that they already do or change how they operate to adapt to new conditions. 

For example, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of universal connectivity. As we all now need to interact remotely, lack of connectivity further excludes people from critical services that they need to function. 

Additionally, the Fund is looking at critical public services right now, especially as countries are dealing with the crisis at its peak and prepare to deal with this in the longer term through a high degree of uncertainty. Four areas are especially important:

  1. Tele-Health
  2. Tele-Learning
  3. Tele-Working
  4. Financial Services

When it comes to how they fund and how they’ve adapted their operations to meet new needs, UNICEF Ventures is examining the work plans for its portfolio of 50 companies to adapt and extend timelines as needed. 

Furthermore, though this is not a new element in their approach, they are looking at solutions that not only address the underlying inequalities, but that also create value that is captured by new kinds of players. 

One strategy for reallocating the captured value is UNICEF Ventures’ commitment to give 50% of funding to female-led companies — a significantly higher proportion than the approximately 2% of VC funding that currently goes to female-led companies. UNICEF is doing relatively well compared to the average, but not well enough to meet their commitment yet. 

Another strategy is that they are exclusively investing in open source solutions, as they‘ve found that this helps countries respond more rapidly. When something is in the public domain, countries can localize and adapt it more easily. And furthermore, individuals can take up open-source ideas and create new business models around them, making it easier for them to create and capture value.

Thirdly, for years the Fund has been involved in helping corporates make their core assets a public good. They’ve done this effectively around data, and they’ve developed a platform that makes data from corporations available to the public — which has proven very important in creating models around COVID spread. This is a great example of why it’s best to set these systems up in advance of a crisis, so that the tap can be turned on when it’s needed and we don’t need twelve months to negotiate a contract.

One final area of interest is the need to explore new financial systems that allow us to transfer and hold value in a digital system. Here, the potential of blockchain and cryptocurrency is huge. UNICEF ventured into this space when they launched a crypto-denominated fund that is funding startups in crypto. They’re also looking at how smart contracts can be used to hold service-providers to a higher level of accountability by setting them up to pay service providers based on performance and delivery of service. 

Though UNICEF Ventures hasn’t made drastic changes to its operations, many of its efforts are contributing to building the new systems and models that we need.

Michael Jarvis, Executive Director, Transparency and Accountability Initiative

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) looks at how to reinforce transparency, citizen participation, and accountability as core elements of a well-functioning society. It strives to ensure that corporations and governments take action that’s in the public interest.

As Michael explains it, after taking care of their grantees’ immediate needs at the start of the pandemic, the TAI came to a shift in perspective and has begun thinking about the medium- to long-term effects of COVID.

One understanding that’s coming through is that civil society has to be core to this rebuilding. Civil society revolves around defending the marginalized, prioritizing those that have been overlooked, contextualizing development, and playing a thought leadership role. It must be there to help us think through and influence the changes in our system that we need to address. 

Additionally, TAI is rethinking some of their funding approaches. They’re lending more flexibility and thinking about non-financial support in a more serious way, including ideas like holistic security, financial scenario planning, best practices for considering mergers, and so on.

Furthermore, they’ve started to see that some of the portfolios that some of their members have started to build up have taken on a new resonance in this climate, including digital rights, fighting misinformation, and work around data trusts.

Finally, we need to mobilize more funders to pay attention and mobilize around this civil society work. To do this, we need to hold donors to account to follow through on their commitments and make their commitments long-term. We also need to diversify where funds are going — we need to fund more local groups. 

Lina Srivastava, Founder of Creative Impact and Experience Lab (CIEL) and entrepreneur-in-residence for GenderAvenger

Lina started by asking: For those that work in civil society, the “for good” sector, storytelling and technology, leadership, and human rights, what is our job right now?

She has three answers:

  1. Triage during the pandemic while we’re going through this crisis, but also during this moment of global uprising. Let’s ask ourselves how we should care for each other and the people that we work with.
  2. Reimagine future states and envision what a rights-based, post-pandemic future looks like in terms of where resources flow, what types of models we build, who is in leadership, and who gets to have voice and power.
  3. Decolonize development by adopting new practices for giving people from affected communities access and ownership over resources.

These questions matter to her right now because she has been thinking deeply about what it means to decolonize development. 

For the nearly two decades she’s been in this work, she’s seen underrepresented people (women of color, people from the global south, underrepresented genders) who have lived experience go unheard and underfunded. Her recent piece in Ms. Magazine called “Post-Pandemic Recovery Will Need Women’s Leadership. Then Again, When Haven’t We?” analyzes the contexts and solutions that we have. It describes how the funder/donor/investor construct is broken and not meeting the current moment.

Foundations, development funders, and investors should be making things easier for grantees and investees but they’re causing more stress on the sector because there’s a certain withholding that’s happening. Re-strategizing is critical, but the funding sector needs to be fundamentally more responsive to the stresses that people are going through. 

Also, why are we not increasing funding instead of pivoting funding? There can be attention to triage, but we need to start rethinking our systems. Take a look at the Libra Foundation or the Firetree Trust for models of funders that have increased funding. 

What do we need to do? Lina is building the Center for Transformational Change, and it’s aimed at helping leaders use storytelling in their own communities using a technology platform.

Her call to funders, as she builds this model and talks to leaders around the world trying to build new models, is to take concrete action to:

  1. Redirect Resources: The rhetoric, in terms of decolonizing development, is often that we need to listen to people from affected communities, but listening is not enough. We need to redirect resource flows to people with lived experience. Look for new leaders and flood their markets.
  2. Create New Ownership: Create new resource flows for people of color, women, and people from affected communities to own the means of production, innovation, and distribution.
  3. Support Localization: Follow the calls to support localization. This doesn’t mean that we should be pulling out. We have to invest in global solidarity networks. Believe us when we say there’s inequality in terms of funding support. Don’t fund another study to show that there’s inequality. Fund us, not a new study.

Examine your own leadership and make sure you’re representing voices with lived experience. 

Finally, make sure that you, the funders, are investing in organizations that are working towards long-term, progressive change through long-term, multi-year support funding. See Lina’s expanded talking points in her Tech Salon summary post here.

Break Out Room Discussions

Much of the conversation in the breakout rooms focused on the challenges of translating some of the discussants’ recommendations into practice — though it was generally done in a spirit of overcoming. Two major themes related to the difficulties of grassroots funding and ecosystem building.

Here are some snippets of the conversations held in the breakout rooms.

Grassroots Funding Has its Challenges

The local response is amazing in what organizations can adopt and deploy in a short period of time, but funders don’t understand how they can support and how they can advocate for changes in funding that would allow them to more quickly fund local organizations.

It is sometimes hard to give money to Global South grassroots organizations, from a legal standpoint. One Salon participant described difficulty in giving money to an organization on the African continent because of legal restrictions imposed by the US government in terms of funding transfers. Then the organization had a “money saving” mentality and not spend the money quickly enough for the foundation’s needs. As a result, it was forced to give some of the funding back. 

It is a constant challenge to build capacity on the ground while satisfying the needs and expectations of donors and leadership.

It can be difficult to get local organizations to adopt new technologies. Organizations like Y Combinator are good at helping start-ups adopt tech. Is there an example of this for NGOs? Open Source for Good has learned that we need more technologists in this sector.

Ecosystem Building Also Has Its Challenges

The key issue in building a robust ecosystem is that people often take the short-term view. Organizations also hesitate to engage with governments on this, but governments have the reach and funding that NGOs need, so NGOs must collaborate with them. There’s perhaps too much focus on NGOs, and not enough on the benefits of engaging with government.


Tech in the Time of Coronavirus Series

The Tech in the Time of Coronavirus Series is co-organized and supported by Technology Salon in conjunction with ThoughtWorksPivotal Act, the UN Foundation’s Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), and GitHub. This particular Salon was also supported by The Engine Room. The series aims to bring together the wider technology sector with humanitarian and crisis response sector experts, specifically those who have worked on past crises situations, to highlight good practices and to avoid repeating well-documented mistakes and re-inventing wheels.

We also hope that through connections made at these Salons we can find effective and impactful ways to work together on the COVID-19 response. We record the first part of each Salon and share it publicly. For the second hour, we divide participants into moderated, off-the-record break-out groups for frank and open discussions aimed at identifying and working through challenges and moving towards collaboration.

We will cover several topics over the next few months, including the issue of responsible and ethical use of data during COVID-19; effective ways to volunteer; the role of the corporate, foundation, and other donors; the impact of COVID-19 on online education, economy and jobs, domestic abuse and gender violence, mental health and substance abuse, and other emerging secondary effects of the pandemic.

We will also cover topics that aim to help agencies working on the crisis to move towards effective digital response necessitated by the need to avoid face-to-face contact with communities and one another and government mandates to quarantine to avoid spreading the virus.

Read about past Salons in the series:

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