Between October 31 and November 4, 2022, Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) organized our first Funders Summit, where we brought together over 80 funders, budget holders, and other key stakeholders involved in the financing and resourcing of open infrastructure to collaboratively explore and discuss a shared framework for investment in open research infrastructure and test out building an alternative funding mechanism.
In a previous blog post, we shared a summary of the discussions during the Summit, as well as some of the slides, recordings, and other artefacts. In this blog post, we’ll share more about the collective funding pilot that we ran during the Summit. First, we’ll share more about the questions driving the design of the pilot. Then, we’ll share:
Designing a space for experimentation
As we build a strong base of research and evidence for decision makers (e.g., funders, budget holders, institutional leaders, consortia, service and infrastructure providers) to help them assess, build, and invest in open infrastructure, we also understand the importance of turning this research into action. One of the main goals outlined in our strategic plan is to enable collective, coordinated action to pilot solutions and enact change.
In designing the Funders Summit, we intended to start testing out some key changes that we’d like to see in how open infrastructure is currently funded, and some of the foundational elements in an alternative funding mechanism.
Through our work in analyzing and understanding the funding landscape and gaps in the open infrastructure space, we recognize that in order to increase and coordinate investment in the sector and sustain open infrastructure, there is a need for:
- Additional transparency: funders need to share their funding data and be more transparent about their decision-making processes.
- Collective decision making: the conversations to discuss and decide what and how to fund need to be broader and involve more stakeholders, particularly those most impacted by those funding decisions.
- Moving beyond project-based funding: focussing on finding areas of opportunity where investment in open, shared infrastructure can most impact and advance access and participation in research.
To this end, we asked:
- How do decision-makers respond to additional transparency? How does it affect their decision making and/or participation in the funding process? What encourages or deters them from participating in a more transparent funding process?
- What motivates funders and budget holders to fund open infrastructure collectively? How does increased collectivity influence decision-making? What are the power dynamics that are at play in such a system?
- What happens when we deprioritize project-specific funding areas, and focus on areas of need? How would they prioritize one area over another? What additional information/mechanism may they need to effectively engage with this type of funding framework?
In addition, we wanted to gather a strong signal for a few areas of opportunity that we can help move forward using funds.
We trialled a participatory budgeting process to experiment with collective funding decision making. We used Cobudget, an open-source platform that not only can help facilitate the process, but also brings in additional elements of transparency, where the individual allocation of funds and comments are visible to everyone participating, with names attached. We are grateful to the Greaterthan team, who helped us design and facilitate the experience with Cobudget and participatory budgeting during the Summit.
Together, we adapted Cobudget to work within the constraints of our collective fund pilot:
- To complete funding allocations in ~48 hours (as opposed to a 2-3 week timeline in more traditional participatory budgeting), we hosted 1-hour live discussions on each funding area. The discussion notes were captured in Google Documents and linked to each funding area’s Cobudget page, serving as a reference for all pilot participants.
- We chose six funding areas from our funding framework. In some areas, the IOI research team had conducted preliminary research (community governance, financial health, and preprints). In others (critical and at-risk infrastructure, technical reliability and security, and adoption), we invited experts in the area to share their experience and knowledge through panel and participatory discussions.
- Cobudget and participatory budgeting are traditionally used to allocate funds to projects with a fixed budget. Given that we intended to find signals for areas (and not specific projects) to prioritize funding to, we assigned a minimum threshold of 30,000 USD to each funding area – this represented the minimum amount needed for meaningful work to be carried out.
- The IOI team brainstormed some ideas of what 30,000 USD could be used to achieve in each area. These served as examples to help participants understand how their funds could be used.
- We asked participants to allocate as individuals and not as representatives of their affiliated organizations. The Cobudget platform content was also only visible to participants in the pilot.
We designed a set of rules for the pilot to provide clarity for all participants. We also developed a concise “pitch” for each funding area, centered on three key questions. You can find the pitches for each funding area in this document.
IOI committed 100,000 USD to this pilot. We are grateful for the additional support from the University of Buffalo Libraries and the Simons Foundation, which bring the total funds available for allocation to 130,000 USD.
The pilot took place between days two and five of the Summit:
- In the first set of hands-on sessions on days 2 and 3, we introduced participatory budgeting and the pilot's format, timeline, funding areas, and rules. Participants also discussed what they would like to learn from the pilot.
- Signing up closed on day 3 at 8pm GMT. Immediately after, we divided the pot equally amongst all participants. There were 36 participants, and each participant received $3,611 to allocate.
- During days 3 and 4 of the Summit, we hosted six sessions to discuss the funding areas. In some sessions, IOI research affiliates presented their research on the area; in others, our invited panellists shared their perspectives and experiences.
- In the second set of hands-on sessions on days 4 and 5, participants reflected on how they’ve found the pilot so far and what they’ve learnt.
- At 10am GMT on Day 5, we closed funding allocations and presented the final results during our core session later that day.
Of the 36 participants, 28 allocated their funds (and all allocated their whole amount).
The top three funded areas were:
- Critical and at-risk infrastructure
- Community governance
- Technical reliability and security
These areas not only received the most funds (USD), but they were also supported by the most number of participants: all three received funds from at least 60% of participants.
The visualization below shows how the allocation progressed (thanks to Bianca Kramer for creating this visualization).
What we learnt
Below, we share some lessons we’ve learnt through the conversations we had with participants during live sessions, asynchronously online, and within our team after the event.
Participants were curious and eager to learn from the pilot and to explore new strategies for investing: to explore how participatory budgeting can be used to engage more funders and stakeholders, to learn about the role they can play in these funding decisions, and to see how participatory budgeting works “in real life”.
We saw a wide range of allocation strategies. Some participants preferred allocating early to not be impacted by others. Others allocated towards the end to be able to respond and balance out investment into various areas. Only four participants allocated their entire budget in one go. Of the rest, the majority of participants spent their budget in four or fewer payments. Many participants allocated all their funds within a short period; others gradually added money to individual areas. Some participants allocated all their funds to one single area, while others split it among a few.
Building and maintaining safety was important regarding participating in the pilot. Some participants expressed that having a Code of Conduct enforced throughout the Summit and the fact that we made clear what was made public and what was not helped participants feel more comfortable with each other and more connected.
Two main barriers that stopped Summit participants from taking part in the collective fund pilot. First, some Summit participants chose not to participate because they feared their decisions might be interpreted as their organization’s position. A significant number of participants also felt that they could not make an informed decision due to not having attended enough sessions.
There were many reasons to allocate funds to a specific funding area. The broad scopes of funding areas meant that participants funding the same area could actually be prioritizing very different aspects of that particular area. For example, within the top funded area of critical and at-risk infrastructure, some funders funded this area to invest in critical infrastructure, while others wanted to fund frameworks to define at-risk-ness. The discussion sessions for each area brought additional ideas, dimensions, and nuance. It was also interesting to see some participants using the comments function in Cobudget to explicitly clarify what they were looking to invest in or why they had chosen to fund this area.
It was challenging to pick one area over another. Participants identified links and dependencies between the various funding areas. The broad scope and the lack of knowledge of exactly what will be funded with the allocated funds made it challenging to compare and decide.
Trust in the hosting organization is key to the success of collective funding mechanisms like this one. We saw that while some participants were comfortable with allocating funds and trusting IOI to lead the next steps in allocating the funds based on the pilot results, others asked for additional clarity regarding governance, timeline, and next steps.
There are still significant challenges for this type of funding mechanism to work in real life. The pilot had been useful in helping us identify some of these challenges. For example, some participants had remarked that funders want autonomy, while others commented that funders often have to know which projects their money was going to to be able to monitor progress and impact. Further iteration and testing is still needed to understand how we can motivate more stakeholders to participate in collective decision making and in designing a mechanism to better support investments into areas of opportunity.
Our objectives with the pilot were to experiment with and learn about the collective funding process, as well as to look for a strong signal for a few areas of opportunities that we can help move forward. In designing the next steps, we are looking to continue to use this as a space to explore and test key elements for the fund that we’re developing for early-to-mid 2024, while also supporting real needs in the community with targeted investment.
We intend to fully distribute the available funds for the pilot ($130,000) and will be proportionally allocating the following amounts to the top three areas, as follows. Our thanks again to the University at Buffalo Libraries and Simons Foundation for their support :
- Critical and at-risk infrastructure: $57,477
- Community governance: $40,467
- Technical reliability and security: $32,056
- Total: $130,000
We will be sharing updates and inviting feedback on our proposed collective fund process in our next quarterly Collaborator Call in January 2023 with those who participated in the Summit. In the next phase of this pilot, we aim to test out key elements in the funding process, including but not limited to mechanisms that:
- center communities most impacted by funding decisions
- solicit and process funding applications from around the world
- improve transparency and efficiency of the application review and due diligence processes
We aim to share the next steps publicly in February and invite participation from the broader open infrastructure community.
In our next and final blog post of this series, we’ll reflect on and share some key lessons from the Funders Summit. Stay tuned!
We are grateful for the support of Elena Denaro and Tomomi Sasaki at Greaterthan for their guidance and support in designing this pilot. We also sincerely thank Bianca Kramer and Katherine Skinner for capturing key lessons from the pilot and Summit.