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Learning

Lessons from the foundation’s tech fellows program

When we launched our technology fellows program three years ago, we knew that for the program to be successful, it would be important to analyze and learn along the way, and adapt based on real-time lessons. So we partnered with the social impact firm Reboot to help us think through what was working, what wasn’t, and how to maximize the potential of the tech fellows program—lessons we are reflecting on now, as we work to refine it. In this guest blog and the related report, Reboot shares some of their observations about the foundation’s program, along with key principles for others interested in using this model.

Michael Brennan, Program Officer, Technology and Society, and Subarna Mathes, Strategy and Evaluation Officer, Office of Strategy and Learning


While technology has become integral to almost every aspect of social justice, the field of people working at the intersection of these two areas is relatively small. That’s why we at Reboot were excited to support the inaugural cohorts of the Ford Foundation’s technology fellows program.

Now, as the foundation prepares to welcome its third cohort of tech fellows, we are pleased to share a set of principles—best practices we have developed in collaboration with the initial cohort, the program teams that have supported them and benefited from their insights, and Ford’s Office of Strategy and Learning—for bringing public interest technologists into an organization. We believe these principles demonstrate the value of embedding new kind of expertise in philanthropy, and will be valuable to funders and nonprofits interested in leveraging technological expertise to accelerate emerging programs, support strategic shifts, and advance the public interest.

Each year, the tech fellows program recruits three fellows with experience in both tech and social justice to join Ford’s program teams for two years. The fellows introduce new behaviors, tools, and mindsets to their teams, and make connections between their existing networks and their new colleagues.

Because the program is so new in both its goals and its approach, the foundation recognized the importance of having an independent expert collaboratively track progress and offer feedback in real-time. And that’s exactly what Reboot did: We worked closely with Ford staff and the fellows to identify, analyze, and act on challenges and opportunities as they arose, drawing on our experience designing innovation and tech initiatives around the world. Through this process, the tech fellows program became both an opportunity to institutionalize public tech expertise, and a test case for how adaptive management can strengthen new programs and help teams integrate new kinds of knowledge in their work.

In a relatively short amount of time, the program changed how staff across the foundation talked about and understood technology’s role in their work, and strengthened connections between people with different kinds of expertise. As the first tech fellows move on to new challenges beyond Ford, we look forward to seeing how they benefit from the knowledge and connections they gained at the foundation.

Three principles for translating tech into public good

The story of this program is about how everyone working for social justice can use technology to push back against inequality, and the biased systems that technologies can mirror and perpetuate—and how they can build and expand the reach and impact of public interest investments. That transformation will take a growing field of experts who are well-versed and well-connected in both technology and social impact. As more organizations take part in building that field, the Ford Foundation’s tech fellows program offers useful lessons.

Principle 1: Value and build external and internal networks of support

From the beginning, Ford’s tech fellows program sought to develop the community of practice working at the intersection of technology and social justice. Program teams found particular value in the fellows’ wide existing networks in fields like smart cities and criminal justice. These networks enabled fellows not only to represent the foundation at external forums, but to facilitate new connections. One fellow, for example, was instrumental in organizing and curating a summit on emerging media that forged new opportunities between practicing artists and funders.

In addition to these external connections, internal networks are also important—and that starts with the bonds among the fellows themselves. Bringing multiple fellows into an organization at once, and supporting them as a cohesive, tight-knit cohort, can enable peer support and shared learning. At Ford, designing the program to support internal networking meant offering frequent opportunities for fellows to meet and share what they were learning.

Principle 2: Start with structure, then drive towards autonomous creativity

Titles like “public interest technologist” or “tech fellow” can be ambiguous at best. So the early stages of any fellowship program benefit immensely from thoughtful structure. Creating clear, specific job descriptions can help knit incoming fellows into an existing team. Ford, for example, asked directors and program officers to help develop fellow selection criteria, giving them a chance to ask for the expertise they most needed, and then more easily integrate the fellows into their work.

As time goes on, it’s valuable to gradually increase the autonomy of the fellows, allowing greater independence to manage their own time and relationships, and to propose new ideas. At Ford, once fellows were embedded in their teams and had built strong working relationships with their directors, they were able to drive independent ideas that helped create connections across the institution. For example, one fellow worked with program officers from across the foundation to support a comprehensive approach to digital security. This fellow-driven initiative introduced a new kind of role for a tech fellow, as well as a potential organizational structure—and it would not have been possible without a level of earned autonomy for the fellow.

Principle 3: Provide ample space for reflection, and help guide it into action

Fellows come to the foundation with a body of experience and expertise that is further deepened through the fellowship and has proven invaluable for Ford’s teams. But how to ensure that all this knowledge is communicated to colleagues and retained by the institution, once the fellows have moved on? Making space for self-reflection and discussion—such as through a facilitated full-day learning retreat, similar to one we organized for the fellows—and developing clear avenues for exchanging information, can help address this challenge.

At the same time, to avoid the dreaded graveyard of unread reports, it’s important to channel fellows’ reflections to the right audiences. The right audience for a memo on common cybersecurity challenges faced by grantees, for example, might be program officers responsible for grants related to digital security, algorithmic bias, or other security issues. On the other hand, incoming fellows might be the key audience for guidance about how to navigate (and learn from) Ford’s institutional dynamics in a non-grantmaking role. Regular discussions and meetings focused on interactive reflection also help enable action-oriented learning.

The importance of learning by doing

It’s been inspiring to watch fellows and staff navigate Ford’s program in such an open, adaptive way. This came through in how the fellows and staff discussed, debated, and listened to each other about the challenges of defining “technologist” within the foundation’s work. It was also clear in how fellows and staff redefined the objectives of the program to clarify the roles fellows can play in the foundation. And it was apparent in the way staff and fellows integrated those new roles and an accompanying theory of change into the job description for the 2019 incoming fellows.

Thanks to an organization-wide commitment to embracing mistakes and learning by doing, the tech fellows program has become stronger and clearer. More than any one practical or strategic consideration of program design, this commitment to learning and iteration may be the most important lesson from this program. Indeed, “learn by doing” may be the most important principle of all.