Bumps in the road on our path towards Open Licensing


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From a project management perspective – all was well. Trina and I met weekly for short, energetic sessions in which we covered research, planning, and discussed how to creatively express our progress.

Early stakeholder sessions had been productive and encouraging. We wrote regular blog posts about our progress, provided internal staff updates and issued invitations to participate in our sessions. Momentum appeared to be growing.

Our external stakeholder conversations were enlightening, and followed our expectations relatively closely. Trina and I have both been involved in the Open Source movement and are familiar with many of the concerns and technical considerations relating to opening up data, content and software. We felt our confidence growing with every session, and we felt more and more certain we were on the right track.

Our next phase involved digging in and defining exactly what the Open Policy would say, teaching staff about the licenses in greater detail, co-creating decision making processes, deciding how to handle exemptions, and exploring the best ways to introduce the policy specifics to grantees. We were focused on ‘what do staff need to know and when’, and ‘what resources need to be created to support the work’?

Our confidence was high as we booked our initial meeting with the Field of Interest team to plan integrating Open Licensing into the grant application workflow.

At this point in our project, we did not foresee being asked the question –“Why are we doing this?”


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In our charge forward, Trina and I had missed something obvious – everyone needs to start at the start, and we needed to bring everyone along the same path at the same time.

With the benefit of hindsight, we should have ensured that representatives from the FOI team had constant access to our decision making and evaluation process from the very beginning. Open Source projects demand a lot of people – that they will adapt to meet a goal that is sometimes not very clearly defined. Assuming that most people will perch on the edge of faith while others hammer out the details is not going to work for everyone.

Valid concerns about the new Policy’s impact, scope, the influence on application approval and other issues that might impact the grant making process were left unanswered for too long. Trina and I leaned towards ‘wait and see’ to try to unearth those ‘things we didn’t know’ as we met with stakeholders, although upon reflection, many of these questions had obvious answers. Had we included all the representatives from the Field of Interest team sooner, instead of just a few in each stakeholder session, many of these concerns might have been alleviated sooner.

We’ve also learned a lesson about making assumptions that everyone had what they needed to understand the project scope. We learned that we can’t assume that information in the atmosphere is reaching people in the way we intended for it to – and sometimes we haven’t provided enough context, or details are missing that would provide clarity for others.

Lesson One learned – connect often and early with the people who will become the project owners!



We should also have spent more time exploring how the organization already works, before seeking to adapt it in new ways. Had we taken a closer look at the evolution already underway in our Field of Interest (FOI) grant making program, we might have better understood why providing more detail early on was so necessary to this group of stakeholders.

Our FOI team is comprised of five stellar, hardworking individuals who shepherd grant applications from concept to final approval for hundreds of British Columbian charities in need of funding every year.

This team carries the weight of informing, advising, evaluating, and coordinating each applicant through a set of requirements and considerations. Organizations big and small ask Vancouver Foundation for funding and our grant making team work hard to make sure each applicant has a fair opportunity to access a limited pool of available funding in each Field of Interest.

It is complex, demanding, patient work.

This same grant making team has just spent an entire year refining an eight-field program into a four-field program with three grant types – develop, test and grow – in order to simplify the application process and provide more options for grant applicants.

To learn more about the Field of Interest Program, click HERE

If a program restructure isn’t enough change to manage, this team is also currently developing the criteria for an overhaul of our Grants Management System to gain efficiencies in how grants are managed by Vancouver Foundation. It’s an important upgrade designed to optimize processes, but at the cost of extensive process evaluation to scope a solution to meet our needs.

And then we lumped on Open Licensing.


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Considering the multiple changes and influences on the team’s time and energy already this year, the questions brought forward by the Field Of Interest team came with considerable good grace and best intentions. But it remained – why are we doing this?

Trina and I were no longer buoyed by the experiences of our international peers whose Openly Licensed grant making seems so simple from the outside. Hewlett and Gates Foundation each work on a different scale, and they fund many organizations who deal in Open Source issues and concerns. They had the benefit of familiarity, size and scope.

In comparison, Vancouver Foundation’s grant making activities highlights many differences, such as concerns around Indigenous cultural protocols, British Columbia-specific marginalized communities and multi-stage projects with multiple funders whose ‘content’ outcomes are rarely clearly defined from the outset of a project. There are a million different possible outcomes  – how will this Policy work beneficially for them all?

The general ‘obviousness’ of the sharing idea makes perfect sense – however when exposed to more rigorous evaluation processes, Trina and I had not yet made an clear case when asked, “How will this Policy create the kinds of systemic change and innovation that we seek from our own grant applicants?”

Click here to see our recent Field of Interest Grants


Trina and I were also asked:

  • “How can we ensure that this is not a new barrier for grantees?”
  • “Can this be optional – there are so many considerations when it comes to Arts and Culture projects, or projects involving Indigenous culture and protocols…”
  • “Will we be required to enforce this requirement? It would force us (Vancouver Foundation) to step into a new role, to cross a line that we never have before.”

All extremely good questions.


What went right and what could we have done better?

Overall, we are getting a lot right with this project. Timing and capacity has created the most challenge for us so far – as well as the fact that we are trying something new, and are bound to make a few errors as we move forward.

Early conversations with our executive team had highlighted that there would be questions around how Open Licensing might impact Vancouver Foundation’s support for Indigenous organizations and our specific concerns around protocol and protection of cultural identity. We also foresaw that our Arts & Culture field would be a community that requires additional support while launching our Open Licensing requirement.

Three stakeholder sessions are yet to occur – with Indigenous organizations, members of the Arts and Culture sector, and other Funders.

Trina and I also swiftly pivoted to more closely integrate Field of Interest team members into every one of our weekly sessions so that they can help inform our process and share learnings back with their team mates. We appreciate the passion and interest that this team is bringing to the project and are happy to be able to share more time together. We might have pushed harder to ensure we had better team integration earlier – and we wish we had.

Overall this ‘bump in the road’  has been very beneficial in activating all of our key players, and followup meetings with the Field of Interest team have been very productive and informative, helping us move even more swiftly towards the key goals we had in mind. Lesson Two learned.



Rebeccah Mullen joined Vancouver Foundation via Mozilla Foundation and has a passion for all things ‘open’. She will be blogging on behalf of Vancouver Foundation as project lead for 2017’s Open Licensing Policy Implementation.

Trina Isakson is an independent strategist, researcher, and facilitator with a focus on the future of the nonprofit sector, and a convener for nonprofit sector leaders in BC interested in open data. She will be leading project strategy and planning, as well as facilitating stakeholder engagement sessions.



This adaptation of “Bumps in the road on our path towards Open Licensing” by Rebeccah Mullen on behalf of Vancouver Foundation is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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