Transparency Talk

« Better Data, Better Decisions, Better World | Main

Internet Society Foundation Joins GlassPockets
July 21, 2021

Sarah-armstrong-close-550px[2]
Sarah Armstrong

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Sarah Armstrong, Executive Director, Internet Society Foundation

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have joined us in building a movement for transparency that now surpasses 100 foundations publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

The Internet Society Foundation funds initiatives that strengthen the Internet in function and reach so that it can effectively serve all people. Its work advances the vision of the Internet Society (ISOC): The Internet is For Everyone. Toward that end, the Internet Society Foundation supports efforts to ensure that the Internet is open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy.

InternetSocietyFdnlogoThe Internet Society Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. In this interview with GlassPockets’ Janet Camarena, Sarah Armstrong, Executive Director of the Internet Society Foundation, explains why transparency is key to its philanthropic approach.

GlassPockets: The last 18 months have been a very unpredictable and challenging time for us all, and much of what is shaping philanthropy today stems from responding to multiple crises unfolding from the pandemic, systemic inequities, and from misinformation that has threatened everything from democracy to public health. How is the Internet Society Foundation responding to these unprecedented times, and how has your thinking about the role of the internet in relation to these issues informed your strategies?

Sarah Armstrong: The past 18 months have shown us all that the Internet is a lifeline. In this era of lockdowns, it’s enabled children to continue learning, families and friends to stay connected, and vital public health information to keep circulating.

Aside from the pandemic, we’ve also seen the role that the Internet and technology play in recording acts of injustice that in previous decades were more easily downplayed. So the Internet and its importance in our lives at this moment cannot be overstated. Yet 49 percent of the world is still unconnected, according to the United Nations. As a Foundation in its start-up phase, we keep that troubling statistic front and center as we build our strategies and we have prioritized two pillars in our work. One is providing connectivity to communities without access. The second is equipping people with the digital skills needed to use the Internet in a productive way. We see those two components – gaining access to the Internet plus having the knowledge to use it productively – as critical to unlocking the Internet’s potential to tangibly change people’s lives for the better.

GlassPockets: The sad realities of remote schooling during the pandemic have raised much greater awareness of how digital divides are still with us and may be getting worse and serving to exacerbate uneven access to quality education and achievement gaps. For example, many of us saw the heartbreaking photo that was widely circulated on the internet of children sitting on a sidewalk outside a California fast-food restaurant to use its WiFi connection to be able to access their digital classroom during the lockdown. The transparency such images provide do serve to lay bare ongoing inequities, even in one of the supposed digital capitals of the world, but is that awareness also helping shift society toward change? As you think about the future of the Internet and how to shape that future in a direction that maintains your vision of the Internet for all, how are you approaching these widening access divides?

Sarah Armstrong: Let me start by saying that our Foundation has a truly global reach – we reached 58 countries in 2020, through 93 grants that are helping organizations around the world change their communities for the better through the Internet. And while each country has its own circumstances, when it comes to Internet access – broadly speaking – we see three challenges that threaten our vision of an Internet for Everyone: affordability, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of digital literacy.

One way we are bridging the access gap is by supporting the creation of community networks. A community network is an Internet access solution built and run by a community, rather than through a major Internet service provider. Community networks offer a complementary way of connecting everyone by bringing connectivity in areas that are financially unattractive for mainstream Internet service providers. We recently supported the creation of two community networks: one is helping improve access for 13 tribal nations in southern California, and the other helped bring the Internet to communities who live on the fringes of the Amazon in northeastern Brazil. Different communities, different countries, but both facing exactly the same challenge.

Another factor that contributes to the access divide is digital literacy, and we are addressing this challenge through our SCILLS program. This program supports organizations that are working to close the knowledge gap that prevents many communities, and in particular girls and women, from using and benefiting from the Internet.

We are also using research as a tool to help us understand, quantify and communicate the true costs of ignoring the access divide. Earlier this year, through our Research program we funded a project in collaboration with the Alliance for Affordable Internet. This research seeks to answer the question, “What is the economic impact of women not having access to the Internet? It’s our hope that by spotlighting the economic dangers of denying women access to the Internet, policymakers and other influential voices will take note of this research, and use it as a tool in creating a roadmap to equity for women in the digital space.

GlassPockets: Transparency, openness, accessibility, and collaboration are some of the virtues that come to mind when thinking about the positive impacts of the Internet on society, so has operating your foundation in a transparent way stemmed from this ideal? And if so, how has your foundation made these virtues core to how you work, and what advice do you have for other organizations embarking on similar efforts?

Sarah Armstrong: The Internet Society Foundation is committed to operating in a transparent way that prioritizes openness, accessibility and collaboration. And we have made this possible in a number of ways.

Our website serves as the single source of truth about our grant programs, where we publish all the information an applicant would need to understand if they are eligible for one of our grants, how to apply, and the process we use to evaluate applications. This information is available in English, French, and Spanish. And as part of our due diligence process, applicants are required to answer a list of questions that can tell us right away if they are eligible and qualified to receive funding.

Additionally, once applications have been accepted for consideration, they are reviewed by what the Foundation calls the Independent Program Review Committee. This committee is comprised of three to five experts who are chosen based on their knowledge of the subject matter and as part of their review, they recommend which applications should be funded and at what level, as well as document feedback for the applicant that is compiled and shared by the Foundation. Throughout this process, independent experts are required to adhere to our Conflict-of-Interest Policy.

"It’s difficult to practice integrity without being honest and transparent.

Lastly, as a team we’ve agreed upon a set of values to guide how we work and one of them calls for us to “act with Integrity.” And it’s difficult to practice integrity without being honest and transparent. My advice to other organizations would be to find a way to embed transparency into your organizational values, that way it’s easier to bring the word into daily conversations and eventually weave it into the fabric of the organization.

GlassPockets: One of the biggest barriers we encounter when it comes to foundations embracing a more transparent approach is a lack of understanding of the return on the investment of time and effort. Can you share a story about how opening up and illuminating the work that you are doing has helped you to better achieve your organization’s goals, or advanced your work in some unanticipated way?

Sarah Armstrong: Being a new Foundation, it’s been important for us to establish trust with our grantees, especially considering that we began running our programs at the onset of the pandemic when everything had an air of uncertainty. One way we have tried to build this trust is by holding quarterly check-in calls that bring all grantees in a given cohort together to informally discuss any challenges, opportunities, or learnings they are experiencing in their projects.

The grantee feedback has been extremely positive, with many sharing that these calls provide them a platform to speak openly and without judgment about the ups and downs of operating their programs in a COVID world, and also allow for a rich exchange of ideas. These calls also provide additional space for the grantees and Program Officers to be more flexible and adaptable, and hold necessary conversations such as perhaps adjusting the scope of a project, or revisiting a project’s goals. As a Foundation that is embracing a test, learn, and adapt model to our programming during this startup phase, these calls have been an important part of our learning journey.

GlassPockets: Your foundation has the distinction of having both a GuideStar Transparency Seal as well as now a GlassPockets Transparency Badge. How did these processes help you improve or better understand the Internet Society Foundation’s level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?

Sarah Armstrong: This process has created the opportunity for us as a team to have these important conversations around what transparency means, how we can embed it into our work, and what kind of Foundation we want to be for our grantees and other stakeholders. This will be an ongoing conversation for us as the Foundation continues to grow and shape our programming, and we look forward to the journey. I’d encourage my peers to participate in this process; it helps us as organizations to build stronger and more trust-based relationships that ultimately enable our work to have a greater impact.

GlassPockets: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your aspirations for how the Internet Society Foundation will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?

Sarah Armstrong: We will continue with the practices we have established but also follow our Test, Learn and Adapt model. Because we are a startup, we know we are testing new things, as well as learning from the practices we have put into place and the questions we are asking. And we make adaptations as needed from what we learn. It is in this way that we will move forward to ensure our transparency commitment evolves.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Share This Blog

  • Share This

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

  • Enter your email address:

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Categories