Why the Ford Foundation wants technologists to join the fight for social justice

As part of our new Technology Fellows program, we’re looking for tech experts to join the foundation’s grant making teams. The fellows will help Ford’s program officers, grantees, and partners better leverage the Internet and information technology to advance social justice and challenge inequality.

UPDATE (September 2016): The Ford Foundation has hired our first cohort of technology fellows.

So, why is a foundation hiring technologists?

Information technology suffuses every aspect of our lives, and the challenges and opportunities it presents for civil society and social justice are greater than ever. It’s very important that government and public service organizations understand the technical landscape, and how developing technologies can serve the public interest, and we believe philanthropy has a unique role to play in making that happen. To name just a few examples, we know that:

As technology transforms the landscape of philanthropy and social justice, the traditional tools of policy, research, regulation, community engagement, and communications simply aren’t enough. We also need to develop a deep understanding of how different technologies and their applications either advance or undermine inequality.

Our new fellows, we hope, will help us better navigate these issues. This might mean making sure an organization can manage its growing stockpile of data in a secure and ethical way, supporting grantees in their efforts to navigate issues of algorithmic bias, or protecting sensitive collaborators from the threat of surveillance.

Why should technologists work in philanthropy?

Typically, people with technology backgrounds have been inclined to find work in the private sector—and that’s been where the most enticing job opportunities have been found. According to a recent report on the flow tech talent into government and civil society, only 5 percent of computer science graduates went to work for nonprofit organizations. Meanwhile, 70 percent went to work in the private sector.

But today’s workers are increasingly motivated by the potential impact they can have on pressing social challenges. According to recent surveys, more than 90 percent of millennials want to use their skills for good, and more than half of those surveyed say they would take a pay cut for work that fits with their values. So what if there was a different path for these technologists—a path that would let them use their skills to change the world for the better?

The Ford Foundation is committed to developing that path: the professional field of public interest technology. What does it mean to work as a technology expert serving the public interest? Is it really possible to have a career using tech skills for social impact? What does that professional identity look and feel like?

Since 2014, through the Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellows Program, we have helped technologists bring their skills to leading policy and advocacy organizations around the world. And now, through Ford’s own two-year Technology Fellows Program, we are expanding our in-house efforts to identify and develop new leaders at the intersection of technology and social justice. Our fellows will be trained at the foundation and go on to forge careers in the growing—and increasingly important—field of public interest technology.

What’s it like to be a technologist at Ford?

The opportunity I’ve described here is one I was searching for a few years ago. As a computer scientist, there were plenty of job opportunities—but none that focused on using technology to affect positive social change. When I expressed my interest in that “different path” to my computer science peers and teachers, I was met with confused looks and blank stares.

I was lucky to have some wonderful mentors who helped me find those less visible opportunities, entry points on the path I was so desperate to find. My advisor introduced me to digital security research, a field that has had a profound impact on activists around the world. Later, a colleague recommended me for my first technologist job, advising lawyers at the Federal Trade Commission on Internet privacy issues. Then last year, that path brought me to the Ford Foundation, an institution that’s as passionate about the intersection of technology and social justice as I am.

As a program officer at Ford, I’m challenged to explore the social implications of technology every day. I examine the opportunities and risks technology can pose to our grantees. I research and understand emerging technology issues and their implications for social justice. And I connect people and ideas with each other, helping to build the new collaborations that will be the foundation for future social change. It’s deeply fulfilling to have a job focused on looking and thinking broadly across the landscape of technology issues that are affecting social justice today.

Ford recognized the critical moment we’re in, and knew it had to change its ability to impact the world through technology. The Tech Fellows program is one manifestation of that epiphany. Stay tuned for more as we continue to explore the role of technology in the fight for social justice.