Research and synthesis by Amarela

Regional Context

The role of philanthropy in relation to digital infrastructures must be experimental.

One criticism made of the digital infrastructure financing ecosystem in Brazil is that many funders in the country believe that financing digital infrastructure is very expensive, that philanthropy does not have the financial capacity to do so, and that, therefore, supporting digital infrastructure should be the role of the Government. An interesting view, however, presented by one of the interviewees is that the role of philanthropy in relation to financing digital infrastructure must be experimental. In other words, foundations should support experimental digital infrastructure projects in order to enable civil society to build solid and refined knowledge about models and possibilities so that, based on this knowledge, it is able to influence the construction of public policies and dispute the debate (especially with the market) on the construction and governance of digital infrastructures.

“I don't believe that the community network projects I support are capable of connecting the whole of Brazil. My expectation is that these projects, which are experimental, generate a set of knowledge and that, based on them, civil society can dialogue with the government on public policies for internet access. And for that, philanthropic funding is needed.” - Interviewed funder.

It is necessary to find points of intersection between the importance of developing open-source digital infrastructures and the strategies that already exist in foundations.

Grantmakers are more likely to be interested in digital infrastructure projects when they understand the potential of these projects to strengthen their own strategies and to strengthen their grantees. In other words, to sensitize funders to support digital infrastructure projects, it is necessary to make them understand how issues related to digital infrastructures (or the lack of them) already affect the issues that they already care about.

If it is strategically important for a foundation to support indigenous organizations in Brazil, for example, an interesting path would be to show how the issue of Internet access impacts these organizations, and how supporting community network projects could contribute to the institutional strengthening of these organizations.

“It is necessary to translate the issue in a way that interests funders. Today I think we can translate digital infrastructure issues as "institutional strengthening" or "institutional resilience". Without an Internet connection, for example, there is no communication capacity, there is no capacity for organization and articulation in networks, there is no capacity to raise funds. Funders are more interested in thinking that by investing in digital infrastructure they are investing in the financial independence of partners. Because no one wants to have dependent partners for decades and decades, who cannot raise funds, who cannot articulate themselves in networks, and who are isolated in their own work, in their own environment.” - Interviewed funder.

Funders in Brazil have little connection with the FOSS community.

Funders who work with Human Rights or even at the intersection between technology and society in Brazil have very little relationship with the FOSS community. Furthermore, the FOSS community itself seems not to be as active today, in Brazil, compared to what it was 15 years ago. In the early 2000s, the free software movement in Brazil was large, and it came to influence many public policies. The Brazilian government at the time even adopted Linux distributions as the main operating system in government institutions, and several government projects in the area of culture were structured around Free and Open Source Software.

There are few groups (5 or 6) in Brazil today working on developing secure and open-source digital infrastructure for civil society organizations, such as installing and maintaining servers, software for collaborative work, videoconferencing applications, and so on. When it comes to the digital protection of civil society organizations, this is a huge gap. Foundations, however, are not aware of this, and still do not support projects that develop this type of infrastructure, in addition to not institutionally supporting their grantees to develop these capacities.

  • Funders need to understand the importance of the role of digital infrastructures for the context in which they operate.
  • Funders need to have references so that they can defend and communicate the importance of digital infrastructure projects within the foundation itself.
  • Funders need to understand the needs of the community that develops digital infrastructures and get closer to them
  • Funders need to understand the needs of human rights organizations regarding the use of secure and open-source digital infrastructure.
  • Most of the interviewed funding organizations were comfortable with the term “funder” and sometimes referred to themselves as grantmakers as well.
  • An interesting thing in this regard is that some people interviewed call their grantees “partners”.
  • People expect to find in the toolkit a little bit of the context of those who work with digital infrastructures and need funding, that is, who could say what are the particularities of this field that a funder should take into account to better finance; as well as a bit of the context of a funder with a lot of expertise, who can share their practices and their process. In other words, the expectation in relation to the toolkit is that it will contain fewer methodologies and more cases and first-person narratives.

Digital Infrastructure Funding Landscape

There are many barriers to accessing finance in Brazil. Large foundations more easily support large organizations that have an annual budget of $100,000 or more, and that has a strong institutional body, with annual auditing and so on. This contrasts with the scenario of groups working with the development of open-source digital infrastructure in the country.

The lack of diversity (of gender, race, experiences, and backgrounds) in senior positions at foundations impacts on strategic and operational choices, and on their relationship with the community and the local context:

“In some foundations, a large part of the staff are people who don't come from civil society, who have never been 'on the other side of the table'. This happens mainly in senior positions such as president, program director. In positions such as program officer or program assistant, there are more diverse, non-white, non-elitist people who know what it means to bond with funders as grantees. However, because this diversity is absent or minority in senior positions, there are many blind spots in the strategic choices of foundations and especially many blind spots in the small operational decisions that greatly influence how things will turn out.” - Interviewed funder.

Program officers interviewed have as their main personal goal as grantmakers:

  • Provide flexible, affordable, and timely access to finance for those currently excluded from funding channels;
  • Equalize power relations in the financing universe;
  • Diversify the field of organizations working with technology in Brazil in terms of racial and gender representation, and in terms of capabilities, backgrounds and experiences.

Some people interviewed pointed to the need to make the internal processes of foundations more transparent for grantees and future grantees. Some program officers believe it is important to work with the grantee to build arguments and strategies to help them advocate for the project within the foundation's internal processes. Program officers who work in this way see grantees as “partners”, and point to the need to bring transparency about the internal stages the project goes through, who makes the decisions, etc.