Trying to get paid to work on diversity in tech? Read this

Do you want to get paid to work on increasing diversity in tech? This post is for you. In this post I focus on aligning your funding with the work you want to do.

TL;DR: The majority of your funding should come from sources who are fairly directly rewarded by your work. Specifically, be aware most for-profit corporations prefer to fund work that has a direct connection to increasing their profits without significantly benefiting their competitors.

If you want to pay people to do this work: Donate to Ashe Dryden, Shanley Kane, Black Girls Code, or organizations people suggest in the comments. Set up a recurring donation if at all possible: recurring donations have the lowest fundraising cost and allows people to do long-term, more effective projects.

What do I know about getting paid to work on diversity in tech?

For the last 3 years, increasing diversity in tech has been my full-time job at the Ada Initiative. I’m delighted that more people are looking for ways to make improving diversity in tech their day job. My co-founder Mary Gardiner and I spent the last few years figuring out how to pay ourselves and others to do this work, and I think we’re starting to get the hang of it. We also made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of things along the way.

I want to share specifically what I learned about aligning funding sources and activism work so hopefully other people can make fewer (or at least different) mistakes. (Note that in this post I’m speaking as an individual rather than as a representative of the Ada Initiative.)

Funding model #1: Get a job at an existing organization with diversity in tech as part of its mission

This is the simplest method, and probably not one I need to go into in detail. Look at the work the organization is currently doing, and that’s probably the kind of work you would be able to do. Keep reading to understand the impact of the organization’s funding sources on the work they are able to do, so you can set your expectations appropriately.

Funding model #2: Corporate sponsorship

The first funding theory people often come up with (and I was no exception) goes something like this: Software companies have lots of money. They benefit from increasing diversity in tech because they can hire more people and produce better products. Let’s ask software companies to fund our work.

Where this model works is: your work provides recruiting services to the companies funding your work (usually at or below market cost). Examples include Anita Borg Institute, the Outreach Program for Women, sponsorships for conferences that attract a lot of skilled tech folks, and scholarships for Hacker School-style training programs. This kind of diversity work matches up open tech positions with early-career people who are already trained to do the work, or almost done with their training.

Funding this kind of work is attractive to companies because the amount spent on sponsoring a conference or an internship is a cost-effective alternative to regular recruiter or referral fees (often tens of thousands of dollars per successful hire), the people they are hiring are generally early career and therefore cheaper, and internships often serve as both extended interviews and a way to produce code the company can use.

Where this funding model doesn’t work: working with people who need more than a few months of training before they can be hired (more expensive), focusing on retention of existing employees (more expensive, requires culture change and letting go of privilege), encouraging industry-wide cultural change (because it doesn’t give a competitive advantage to individual corporations), and anything critical of the industry status quo (because nobody likes paying money to be publicly criticized).

Funding model #3: Work as an employee for a tech company

Another popular funding idea is to become an employee of a for-profit tech company and include diversity in tech work in your job description, either part or full-time. This sounds great but is tricky to do in reality.

My experience and observation is that if you are hired primarly to do job X, with, say, 10% of your time allocated to diversity in tech work, it quickly becomes 10% in addition to the 100% time you spend on your main job – unless you can show a direct connection between the company’s profits and your diversity in tech work. (In most cases, it should be connected to your division’s quarterly or annual goals in a measurable way.) The same advice to show a connection to the company’s profits goes for a job doing diversity work 100% of your time.

Imagine you’re a director, and you’re sitting in a yearly review meeting, looking at your department’s budget and your goals. You see the line item for diversity in tech work. How does this get you closer to that promotion? It doesn’t. Don’t expect people to support your work in the context of a system that punishes them for doing so. This goes double for full-time tech diversity jobs.

The second issue is that you can’t do anything controversial (read: effective) without endangering your job. When SendGrid fired Adria Richards for blogging about about PyCon attendees making sexist jokes, it was just one example of the risks tech employees face for speaking up. It is a very rare corporation that will not at least pressure employees to “keep your head down.”

Where this model works is: your work is not controversial, it does not publicly criticize either your employer or any of its competitors or partners, it does not significantly benefit your competitors, and it contributes measurably and directly to an important, specific company goal linked to profits. (You can’t criticize your employer’s competitors because you will be open to accusations of bias.)

An important exception to the rule that for-profit companies only fund work that contributes directly to the bottom line is companies that are owned and controlled largely by a person (or a few people) who care(s) deeply about diversity in tech and who will devote money to it whether or not it increases their company’s profits. These people and companies are wonderful but too rare to build an entire funding base on.

Funding model #4: Crowd-funding

The next model is can be summarized as “crowd-funding” – a new name for an old concept that is getting easier to execute with Internet services like Indiegogo and Gittip. In this model, funding comes from a large number of individual donations by people who care about increasing diversity in tech for personal reasons: a commitment to social justice, a desire to help people close to them, or wanting to make their community a more pleasant place, to list a few. I personally love this kind of funding because it aligns the most with the kind of work I want to do: controversial, effective, high-leverage culture change.

Where the crowd-funding model works: Work that has continuous short-term outputs that satisfy individual people’s desires to see improved social justice. Like all funding methods, it requires a fair amount of fundraising effort, especially after the first round. Obviously you also need an extensive personal network to make this work, but that is true for any diversity in tech work I’ve seen.

Funding model #5: Grants

Frankly, I have almost no experience with grants, but did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people who do. Grants (either government or private) have enormous overhead and are out of the reach of most individuals and small corporations. At this point in the game, grants only make sense for large organizations except in very unusual circumstances (Wikimedia Foundation’s extremely lightweight community grants programs is one example).

To non-profit, or not to non-profit?

Is it worth creating a non-profit corporation and getting tax-exempt status in the U.S.? If your organization would consist of just one person doing diversity work, probably no.

The benefits of becoming a tax-exempt non-profit include potentially increased donations if donors can deduct them from their taxable income, qualifying for corporate matching gift programs (huge!), increased donor confidence, and various free or discounted services (like hosting and CRM services). The costs are incredibly extensive paperwork, accounting, reporting, oversight, compliance, etc.

Interestingly, my experience is that individual donors to diversity in tech efforts are fairly likely to donate to a non-tax exempt cause anyway. In my opinion, going for the full tax-exempt non-profit status is only worth it if you are funding more than one person’s work (and have either a deep interest in accounting or iron self-discipline).

Fiscal sponsorship is another ball of wax: basically, you pay part of your donations to an organization that does part of the accounting and due diligence for you, and in return it funnels tax-exempt donations through to your organization. You need to find a fiscal sponsor whose mission encompasses yours, and you are then potentially subject to pressure on your fiscal sponsor if you do something unpopular. It works for many organizations (feminist makerspaces like Seattle Attic and Double Union, for example) but I haven’t seen it in use to fiscally sponsor a single person’s work.

Summary

Getting paid to do diversity in tech work as your day job is really fucking hard. Think carefully about your funding model from a systems point of view: What are the incentives? Who benefits? What are the trade-offs? Then go out and make it happen.

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  1. Pingback: The man who mistook his wife for a linkspam (3 January 2013) | Geek Feminism Blog

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