At the Ada Initiative, our mission comes first. That’s why we will only accept sponsorships or partnerships that further our mission of increasing the status and participation of women in open technology and culture.
In the past, we have turned down or ended partnerships because we felt they were more likely to harm women in open tech/culture than help them. Usually we do not share these decisions publicly, but we have twice in the last year needed to make public announcements about the end of one of our sponsorships or partnerships: once in 2013 with Michael Schwern, and once in 2014 with GitHub. This has happened enough times that we decided to write and publish a sponsorship policy that explains how we decide to begin and end sponsorships and partnerships. Our new sponsorship policy is available here and included at the end of this post. The rest of this post explains the motivation and reasoning behind creating our sponsorship policy.
Why we need sponsorships at all
The Ada Initiative’s mission is to increase the status and participation of women in open technology and culture. We make a difference by providing support, education, and tools to people of all genders to help them change the culture of their communities to be more supportive of women, and to help women overcome internalized sexism. We do this most effectively by paying people at market rate to implement our programs, rather than asking people (often women) to work for free in an unsustainable manner – a relatively common and harmful practice in this space. At a fundamental level, we raise money for our work because we are trying to change the system we live in at the same time that we, the organization and our employees, have to survive within that system – and that system requires money.
In order to pay our employees and fund programs like our AdaCamp unconferences, we accept funding from several sources: primarily donations from individuals, but also fees for teaching workshops, donations in kind, and monetary donations from corporations. (When we say “sponsorship” we refer to monetary donations, and “partnership” means in-kind donations or joint projects not necessarily involving money.) At the Ada Initiative, we strive to find creative ways to make our funding sources align with our mission as much as possible. This is part of why we rely so heavily on many smaller donations from individual people who share our mission: because they allow us the independence to refuse corporate sponsorships when we feel they might harm our mission.
How corporate sponsorships support our mission
Most corporate donations are in the form of public sponsorship of one of our programs or of the Ada Initiative’s work as a whole. In most cases, public sponsorships advance our mission in several ways, by:
- Raising awareness of the Ada Initiative’s work
- Showing that corporations in the field support this work
- Sending a message to people and organizations working for and with the sponsor about expected behavior and values
- Supporting employees within the sponsoring organization who advocate for change
- Connecting women in open tech/culture with supportive organizations
- Funding our work directly
We are incredibly grateful to our many generous sponsors who make our work possible.
How sponsorships and partnerships can harm our mission
In some cases, accepting sponsorship from an organization or person can actually harm our mission! Public partnership with the Ada Initiative can be used to silence criticism of an organization or person’s actions that are harmful to women in open tech/culture. Sponsorship can be used as “proof” that an organization can’t be sexist, or isn’t sexist any longer, allowing the organization to avoid meaningful systemic change to prevent and make reparations for bad behavior. It can be used to provide cover for future abuses of women in open tech/culture. It can cause victims of abuse to doubt the reality of their experience and discourage them from reporting it. Even private sponsorships – donations that are made without revealing the identity of the donor publicly – can harm our mission, by causing us to potentially self-censor or limit our activities to avoid losing potential future income.
Why we created a public sponsorship policy
For reasons discussed above, the Ada Initiative has refused several potential sponsorships and partnerships, and ended a handful of existing sponsorships and partnerships. We also sometimes refuse to teach training workshops for certain organizations or participate in certain events. Reasonably enough, some people want to know how we make decisions about who to sponsor or partner with. Initially, we did not have enough information to create a formal written sponsorship policy, but after three years of experience making these decisions, we felt comfortable writing down and publishing our standards. We will continue to revise and update this policy as needed.
Why we can’t comment on ending specific sponsorships
Our sponsorship policy explains our general reasoning and philosophy around accepting or rejecting sponsorships or partnerships. Because we don’t want the Ada Initiative to be bankrupted by legal costs defending against potential libel or defamation lawsuits, we often can’t give any further explanation or discussion of why we ended or refused any particular sponsorship or partnership (or even hint or imply why we did so, or discuss any legal advice we might have received). We’re sorry about this, and note the bitter irony that these are the same considerations that often silence and harm the people we are trying to serve.
A note on dialogue and explanations
When the Ada Initiative disassociates ourselves with a person or organization, people often pressure us to engage in a dialogue with the person or organization concerned. Many people believe that most or all people and organizations they think well of have compatible values with themselves, and any apparent disagreement between them must be the result of a misunderstanding or lack of education. This is often expressed as “I’m sure if you just talked, everything would work out.” Unfortunately, our experience over several years is that many people and organizations do not have compatible values with the Ada Initiative’s mission, and in those cases, dialogue with them often serves only to legitimize their opinions and actions and use up the Ada Initiative’s extremely limited staff time.
Please do not pressure us to engage in dialogue with a person or organization. As an organization involved in education, we are already aware of that option and have used it if we think it is appropriate. Also, please don’t demand that we share more information – we can’t usually publicly share all of the information we used to make a decision to disassociate ourselves for many reasons. Our desire to protect victims and to avoid bankruptcy through legal fees are only the two most common reasons.
How publishing our policy helps our mission and our sponsors
An explicit sponsorship/partnership policy with publicly defined standards will increase the effectiveness of an Ada Initiative sponsorship. Published sponsorship standards mean that when an individual or organization is an Ada Initiative sponsor, others know that the Ada Initiative has done some level of research on an organization or person and believes that, overall, they are working to support women in open tech/culture.
Being public about our partnership standards furthers our mission in another way: when people know that the Ada Initiative does due diligence on partners and will sever those relationships if necessary, they feel more comfortable reporting problems or concerns they have about the employees or statements of our current partners. This gives the partnering organization or person the chance to address and fix the problems, with the assistance and expertise of the Ada Initiative if they request it. Our experience with this situation so far has been overwhelmingly positive – for the people reporting the problem, for Ada Initiative sponsors, and for our mission of supporting women in open tech/culture.
Having high standards for Ada Initiative sponsors and partners is good for women in open tech/culture. Documenting and publishing those standards is even better.
Read the most up-to-date version of our sponsorship policy here, or read below for the version as of the publication of this blog post.
Ada Initiative sponsorship policy
The Ada Initiative will only accept sponsorship or partnership arrangements that further our mission of increasing the status and participation of women in open technology and culture. This policy describes how we decide to begin or end these arrangements.
Beginning sponsorships or partnerships
We do some basic research on organizations and people who want to sponsor or partner with us before we accept. We search for public information such as news stories, ask current or former employees about their experiences, and draw on the personal networks of our staff and advisors. Here are some of the questions we ask when deciding whether a sponsorship or partnership will advance our mission of supporting women in open tech/culture:
- What are the publicly expressed opinions and actions of senior leadership in this organization?
- At a systemic level, does this organization or person improve the environment for women in open tech/culture or make it worse?
- Do its business activities directly harm women or open tech/culture?
- Does it encourage reporting of incidents of harassment or discrimination by or within its organization?
- When it learns of such incidents, how does it respond?
We look for organizations and people that proactively work to prevent problems in the first place, accept responsibility for problems, apologize sincerely for the harm done, make amends where possible, review the circumstances that allowed the problem to happen, and institute changes to reduce the likelihood of future similar problems.
While past behavior is a strong indicator of future behavior, we don’t make sponsorship decisions based solely on whether or not an organization or person has done something wrong in the past. As organizations grow, the likelihood of someone in the organization doing something that harms women in open tech/culture grows. Organizations exist in the context of today’s society and its injustices and inequalities, and all of us are complicit at some level in those injustices and inequalities. We are interested in the direction of change in the organization, both internally and in its effect on the outside world.
Ending sponsorships or partnerships
Sometimes we will come to the conclusion that an existing sponsorship or partnership no longer supports women in open tech/culture. This is not a decision we make lightly, and usually involves a large number of factors and inputs, not all of which are public. Most, if not all, decisions involve weeks or months of discussion with dozens of people, trying to find more information that would help us make the right decision to support women in open tech/culture.
If we believe that it would be an effective use of our time to talk directly with the sponsor or partner about why we are ending a partnership, we may do so – e.g., if we have a long history of working closely together with a specific person at the organization, or if an organization has a history of asking for feedback and correcting mistakes, or if they come to us with what appears to be a sincere request for help. Part of what we do at the Ada Initiative is advise people and organizations on how to support women in open tech/culture. However, the Ada Initiative is a very small organization with extremely limited time and funding, so we choose carefully how we spend our time. We don’t choose to invest our time in organizations or people who have a history of harassment by top management, who have a history of harassment without visible consequences for the harasser, who have repeatedly ignored advice from outside experts, or who appear insincere in their desire to support women in open tech/culture.
If we have discontinued a relationship with a person or organization, we will consider resuming it only after significant, repeated actions over a long period of time, a major change in leadership, or other significant, costly changes that indicate a change in the future behavior of the person or organization. Some examples of actions that might change our partnership decision include: sincere and detailed apologies, making legal agreements to the benefit of injured parties, instituting new policies with credible enforcement systems, requiring new, tough, specific training for employees, making significant private charitable donations to related organizations, resignation or other consequences for responsible parties, signing non-disparagement agreements to the benefit of victims, monetary restitution of damages, hiring independent outside consultants and implementing their recommended changes, and dissolving harmful partnerships. In general, we prefer to see organizations and people supporting or following the lead of existing advocates and communities and the programs they create, rather than creating their own in-house programs or promoting their own employees’ voices.
If you believe that we are not living up to the standards and commitments we make in this policy, or would like to discuss concerns about one of our sponsors or partners with us, please email us at email@example.com.