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The Digital Pioneers Fund and Academy

Author: SIE
Published Date: 23 June 2011

An Unjust Kingdom
Sustainability, social cohesion, education, health care, culture & arts etcetera. Since the digital revolution these social issues can be approached in new ways with the help of social media. More than ever before, citizens locally and worldwide are able to cooperate and tackle problems related to these issues bottom-up. In other words, the Internet offers an enormous potential for empowering civil society organisations and ad-hoc groups of citizens interested in influencing and shaping the society around them. However, starting a social non-profit from scratch might be difficult.

Social Innovation Heroes
Out of this realisation emerged the idea for a small-scale fund, ‘Digital Pioneers’, that aimed at enabling civil society Internet projects. The fund was run by the independent think tank Knowledgeland, and made available by the ministry of education culture and science. The application procedure attempts to be as accessible as possible and the turn-around time from submitting a proposal to receiving the first 80% of the grant sum is only six weeks. Also there are very few formal prerequisites for getting support from the Digital Pioneers fund. The lack of formal requirements is compensated by close and intensive contact between the digital pioneers team at Knowledgeland and the applicants.

The Innovation Journey
Over the last 8 years the digital pioneers fund has supported more than 175 projects (many of them run by people or organisations who had never submitted a funding application before). The projects that have been supported with amounts between €5000 and €32.000 cover a wide range of topics (from distributed noise pollution measurement networks, to online libraries for children with severe learning disabilities to online communities for migrants and everything in-between) and approaches (some have build software for others to re-use, some have produced content to highlight specific social issues while others have provided platforms to organize social participation and inclusion). More than 80% of these projects have been successful and together they generate more than 2 million visits per month.

The Battle
For a lot of these projects the Digital Pioneers fund has provided the incentive to realize their ideas and transform them into projects that would have otherwise remained at the idea stage. Over the years we have recognized that for number of these projects sustainability is the most important challenge. To help the initiatives develop into sustainable projects we have set up de Digital Pioneers Academy, an intensive four-month course that helps these initiatives to develop a business plan to make them sustainable
without project funding. Since 2007 more than 50 projects have successfully graduated from the digital pioneers academy. Most of them are still up and running as independent organisations.

The Way Back Home
In December 2010 the 18th and last round of the Digital Pioneers fund came to an end. While there the Internet still offers enormous potential for civil society initiatives to contribute to society we also have recognized that it is time to apply more focus on what kind of initiatives to support and nurture. In the last two years we have tailored our approach to initiatives working in the field of e-participation and open government and we are currently examining how to use the digital pioneers approach to strengthen the
emerging field of citizen journalism.