Reflections on 2021 from Katy Knight, Executive Director

Posted on Thursday, December 16th, 2021

The Siegel Family Endowment Team

Dear Friends,

As we transition into the new year, I’m grateful for the chance to reflect on the lessons and insights that have guided our work during another year of unprecedented change. 

At Siegel Family Endowment, we take an inquiry-based approach to our work. We challenge assumptions as a basis for discovering more innovative ways to build a better world. And if the events of recent years have taught us anything, it’s that our systems need deep, structural examination. 

This year we’ve seen some of these issues—from the outsized impact of Big Tech on our daily lives, to the need for a more comprehensive understanding of infrastructure—elevated to the national stage. We know that philanthropy doesn’t hold all the answers to addressing these challenges. However, we believe that philanthropy is uniquely positioned to ask questions, take risks, and chart a path forward. As a result, our work continues to set examples for how out-of the-box thinking can transform lives in a real, tangible way. 

Our thesis on multidimensional infrastructure is now being put to the test in localities across the country. 

When we first began thinking about infrastructure as part of our grantmaking, it was with the idea that the underlying things that connect us—that make us thrive or falter as a society—have evolved, yet our definition of infrastructure has been slow to evolve with it. As Americans have come to learn this past year, infrastructure is much more than just roads and bridges; it encompasses cell towers and broadband cables, computers and hand-held learning devices, public parks and power grids, and the people and organizations that sustain our physical and virtual communities. 

We first articulated this multidimensional view of infrastructure in 2018, which led to the release of a seminal whitepaper in 2020. Since then, the pandemic has dramatically highlighted how when one element of our society—such as internet connectivity or childcare—is under-resourced, we all lose. 

In 2022, the landmark trillion dollar federal infrastructure legislation is primed to set in motion a radical update to our society. Already our grantee partners are rising to the challenge of modernizing the basic structures and networks that help society function effectively, and engaging in dialogue about what type of infrastructure we need going forward. Their work, which ranges from holistic and resilient placemaking by Center on Rural Innovation and the Regional Plan Association, to the reconception of data ownership and community power by Mozilla’s Data Futures Lab and Data & Society, provides a glimpse of how we might manifest a better version of infrastructure that ushers in a different future.

To enhance our inquiry-driven approach to grantmaking, we’ve increased our investment in research. 

Our grantmaking is rooted in the scientific method, and is inspired by our chairman and founder David Siegel’s approach to his life’s work. We ask questions that help us develop an informed hypothesis, support academic work that uncovers evidence, track outcomes thoughtfully, and apply our findings in order to inform the next phase of inquiry.

We believe that a well-functioning philanthropy is also a learning organization. It should challenge assumptions, learn from successes as well as failures, and connect the dots between issue silos and sectors – all while identifying gaps in knowledge that need to be filled. And perhaps most importantly, it should share this knowledge with relevant stakeholders, and use its findings to increase impact. 

To that end, we’re proud to have launched a new in-house research function, which will devote significant resources to developing new research and insights on topics at the intersection of technology and society – from mapping returns on infrastructure investments to understanding the flow of disinformation through communities. This effort is powered by our inaugural Partner Research Fellowship Program, a collective of eight fellows who will be producing new research on critical issues. 

A key remit of this new team will be to apply theory to practice, and deploy knowledge about our economy and systems from academia into real world settings. It’s in this spirit that we are working with partners such as Aspen Digital, Michigan State, and UCLA’s Computer Science Equity Project to catalyze new insights into multidisciplinary questions. We’re excited to share new papers and projects from these partners and our fellows throughout the year to come.

We continue our commitment to equity in everything we do. 

From Siegel Family Endowment’s earliest days, our chairman has urged us to “look in the corners” to fund organizations, projects, and leaders that are unnoticed. That charge continually challenges our assumptions about where innovation happens, and has afforded us the opportunity to support and lift the voices of leaders who may not have been heard in traditional spaces.

But championing equity doesn’t stop at the grants we make; true equity happens in our everyday processes, in the details. We’re proud that over half of our grantee leaders are women and a third are people of color. We believe that it is a positive reflection of the sort of outcomes that can be achieved organically when work is centered in equity. Yet, the work is never done, and we will continue to challenge our assumptions about what it means to work equitably and push ourselves to do better. 

From eliminating barriers in America’s workforce to building new technologies and artificial intelligence rooted in equity and the public interest, our grantee partners continue to set a new standard for reimagining systems in a way that works for everyone. This coming year, we will continue to “look in the corners” starting with the publication of a new whitepaper reimagining the way we approach education. We will also be revisiting our approach to workforce development, with the goal of finding fresh ways to ensure education, jobs and opportunities within the innovation economy are accessible to all. 

As our work at the Siegel Family Endowment continues to expand in new ways, we remain grateful for your support and insights on this journey. We invite you to challenge your own assumptions, and make seeking knowledge an integral part of your goal setting in the year ahead. As we move forward, we should also not forget what we’ve all learned through this trying time. There’s work to be done, and we all have a role to play in doing it. 

We invite you to read our full 2021 Year in Review Report.

 

With hope and best wishes for 2022,

Katy Knight, Executive Director

Siegel Family Endowment