We’re in the business of trying to make sense of radical transformation – and being as exposed as we are to significant, ongoing change, it’s only fitting that we remain open to significant change as an organization.
Since we published our last annual story, we’ve focused on growth. We broadened the scope of our mission, re-oriented our grant making interest areas to be more far-reaching, and grew our team significantly. The growth we’ve experienced in each of these areas has affected the way we approach our work, and increased our capacity for impact.
Here’s a look at what’s changed over the course of the last year:
We’ve revised our mission to the following:
“To understand and shape the impact of technology on society.”
In many ways, this represents a significantly broader scope of focus. Practically, this shift allows us to do two things more deliberately: first, to pursue relationships with a more diverse range of grantees, and second, expand the types of engagements that we do with grantees.
Because understanding the global effects of technology on society also requires us to know more about local impacts, we’ve started to expand our footprint beyond the coasts, and have partnered with more locally-focused programs than ever before – not only to expand our reach and potential to scale our impact, but also with the goal of learning from these organizations about how their context impacts the way they work. Ubiquitous technology impacts people everywhere, so understanding a broader range of local contexts will enable us to assist in the development of solutions and opportunities for all.
We know that there’s a lot of excellent work happening beyond the coasts, and we’re excited to start building bridges between programs in different parts of the country. This year, we started supporting the teaching fellows program at the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Constellations investigates the tech education ecosystem in service of students of color and other underserved groups, and develops programmatic solutions that improve academic and professional experiences in STEM fields for those populations. Much of their work is specific to systems in Atlanta, but has implications for programs throughout the country and around the world. What’s more, locality-specific lessons from this program are helping us to develop more detailed objectives as we start to think about how we can motivate change at the systems level. Other teacher professional development programs, including those at the University of Texas Austin, and at Cornell Tech in New York City, are helping enrich our positions in this area.
We’ve also expanded our support of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), where in 2017 we were one of the first funders to support their pilot project in Springfield, Vermont. CORI, which is based in Hartland, VT wants to rethink how we can leverage infrastructure assets to promote new business development in rural areas (including startup accelerators and tech campuses), and how we can expand educational programs to teach skills that are relevant to the jobs of the future. CORI is now working in partnership with other communities around the country, to develop and replicate their work in regions where it will have the most impact. We are excited about this opportunity to address not only re-skilling and up-skilling in overlooked communities, but also the sort of innovative economic development that can come from assessing a community’s existing potential. We’re hopeful that CORI’s work will inform future projects in locations across the county, and even globally.
As our mandate has grown, so has the diversity of grants and partnerships that we’re able to make – and that gives us more opportunities for progress towards achieving our mission.
We still make grants across three main interest areas, but we’ve refined the way we talk about each one. The underlying values and objectives haven’t changed, but our vocabulary has.
Here’s how we’re thinking about the challenges at the core of each of our interest areas, and the opportunities for innovation that we see in each of them:
The Challenge: Rapid changes in technology affect what and how we learn. Without adaptable skills, more and more people risk being left behind by digital transformation.
Our Approach: We support research, platforms, and programs that offer everyone the skills, tools, and opportunities they need to continue learning and adapting, and that are open, accessible, and innovative.
The Challenge: Everyone should be able to engage meaningfully in a rapidly changing, innovation-driven economy, but there’s a disconnect between education and application, and access to skillsets that will be relevant in the future economy is not widely available.
Our Approach: We support research on the changing nature of work, programs that equip people with future-relevant skills and access to career pathways, and initiatives that are driving systems change and broadening opportunity to access the innovation economy.
The Challenge: Technology has changed the way we engage with institutions and one another, and reshaped foundational elements of civil society. Innovation can have immensely positive impact or be an unprecedented force of destruction. In a world that is increasingly digitally connected, we need to develop a new understanding of what infrastructure is, both physical and otherwise, and what it can do for us.
Our Approach: We advocate a new understanding of infrastructure that is both physical and social, and fund work that encourages responsible, credible engagement and practices in the digital space.
This three-pronged approach gives us the opportunity to explore and impact areas that we think will have the greatest, continual impact on shaping the future of society. Our strategic approach for each interest area will remain flexible, and we’re looking forward to applying and adapting to lessons we learn as we go.
“As we develop ever-closer working relationships with grantees, the structures of those partnerships continue to evolve, too.”
Our partnership with CSforALL also underscores our ongoing commitment to partnerships and collaboration. As we continue to develop closer working relationships with grantees, the structures of those partnerships continue to evolve, too. While our partnership with CSforALL is one of our most in-depth to date, we’ve pursued unique partnerships with grantees before, and will continue to do so in the future.
All of these changes have had implications for the way we choose to present ourselves and the work of our grantees to the world. You may have noticed that we’ve undergone a pretty thorough reimagining of our visual identity, and built out a new website that illustrates our approach to grant making more succinctly.
“We’re building communication tools that allow us to be a part of many important and ongoing conversations.”
As we refined our approach and expanded the scope of our ambitions over the last year, we realized it was time to develop a visual identity that represents those goals more clearly. Just as we got more explicit with our objectives, we needed a visual language that could present our findings as clear and approachable. As SFE develops into a conduit for expertise, new information, and findings, we want to build communication tools that allow us to be a part of many important ongoing conversations.
We also wanted to be able to present a more thorough record of the work that we’re doing, updated in detail and in real time. That’s why you can now find a comprehensive listing of our grantees, along with a description of our working relationship with each one, in the Grantee Index (think of it as a permanent version of last year’s “Grantee Yearbook”). Regular updates on our work and developments in our interest areas, authored by SFE’s staff and occasionally in collaboration with our partners and grantees, can be found under the “Insights” tab.
At SFE, we don’t always look at the challenges we take on as problems in need of firm solutions. Instead, we aim to reflect changes we see in the fields where we work, and to keep our approach adaptable to developments that we observe everywhere.
Embracing change as we have in the last year has helped us to work more effectively, both in service of our grantees, and as part of a broader community of funders, thinkers, and conveners. And even though it’s likely that we’ll have a whole new set of changes to introduce around this time next year, we’re already excited to reflect on what’s shifted in the fields where we work, and how we’ve grown as an organization. We’re looking forward to sharing more of our findings with you, and excited to keep engaging with ongoing transformation.