Ignore digital equity at your own peril: your funding is ineffective without it


Chris Worman


Almost half of humanity lives in a state of digital inequity – lacking the internet connectivity they need to participate in today’s digitized world. They are overwhelmingly our most vulnerable, most marginalized communities – the people philanthropy and civil society seek to serve. 

Last year, I argued in Alliance that whatever you invest in, if you are ignoring digital inequities as the world goes online, each grant you make will be less impactful than the last. 

We asked civil society if they agreed.

To better understand the impact of persistent digital divides through the eyes of civil society, we surveyed organizations about the digital barriers they and their communities face. Thanks in part to Alliance readers, over 7,500 NGOs and foundations from 136 countries, who collectively serve over 190 million people responded. The news is grim.

  • More than 3 in 4 participants said that a lack of internet access, tools, or skills limits their ability to serve their communities effectively.
  • Just 12 per cent of respondents strongly agreed that the communities they serve have internet connectivity.
  • 43 per cent said internet access was too expensive for their organization and 67 per cent said the cost was too high for the people they serve.
  • 39 per cent of respondents cited a lack of skills as a top digital barrier in their organization.

A huge digital barrier stands in the way of civil society organizations working improving people’s lives. The good news? This is a solvable problem. We have the technology and the operating and financing models we need to connect everyone on the planet to high-speed, affordable internet. But to accelerate progress, I believe three things need to happen:

1. All civil society organizations must see digital equity as part of their mission

Ninety-five per cent of organizations responding to the survey said the internet is critical to their ability to do their work. One survey respondent who provides child education programs in India said: ‘Covid has shown us how important digital connectivity is. We were not able to connect with over half our community or team because of a lack of internet. We could not reach the children with educational services because of lack of connectivity.’

Regardless of our organization’s primary mission, advancing digital equity among both civil society organizations and those they serve is key to helping us deliver. It makes our work more impactful and helps us reach and empower those we seek to serve. We must, therefore, stop seeing digital equity as a siloed issue and start seeing it as a foundational condition for civil society as a whole to succeed.

Every right we have has been fought for and won by civil society. Civil society must organize citizens to demand their rights are achieved through whatever models are best placed to deliver. As argued in a recent World Economic Forum whitepaper, with more public-private cooperation, civil society can lead the charge on inclusive solutions for connectivity.

2. Philanthropy must get off the bench

Given that internet access is now critical for progress across almost every issue that matters to the philanthropic sector, you might think philanthropic funders would be heavily invested in solving the digital divide. Sadly, you’d be wrong. In an analysis of giving to digital equity causes, we found just 0.05 per cent of overall giving from large US foundations between 2010-2019 went to efforts to close the digital divide. This has to change so that civil society has the resources to break digital poverty cycles and secure progress towards a world where everyone has the internet connectivity, devices and skills they need to survive and thrive.

Has Covid-19 been a tipping point, underlining the importance of connectivity and persuading funders to write checks for digital equity causes? Maybe. Among grantmakers answering the survey, 58 per cent of those that currently fund internet access projects said they plan to increase investment over the next five years. Just 10 per cent intend to scale back. Still, 43 percent of grantmakers surveyed do not invest at all in broadband – highlighting an opportunity for more philanthropic support. 

3. We must move past market-based solutions.

Everyone – philanthropy, civil society, policymakers, investment communities – must recognise the need to go beyond the market-driven corporate model if we’re to succeed in building broadband for everyone. 

Ninety-one per cent per cent of respondents to the survey believe that internet access is a basic right. It’s a right we’ve collectively committed to deliver for everyone by 2030, through Sustainable Development Goal 9C. And yet, over decades, the model we’ve used as the dominant way to secure internet access for everyone has failed – even with hundreds of billions in public subsidies. The economics simply don’t stack up for profit-driven companies to connect many rural, remote and low-income communities.

But there are financing and operating models that can deliver. From community-based broadband networks and public-private partnerships, to blended financing that combines public grants, impact investments, and commercial capital, broadband champions are showing it can be done. We must support these innovators.


The survey has made it clear how far we have to go – but also how important this mission is for the lives of the most marginalized and the success of civil society. We know the problem. We have solutions. We need to take action. By increasing our understanding that this problem can and must be solved, and by mobilizing networks and financial muscle to empower civil society organizations to do this work, the philanthropic sector can provide the catalyst needed to get the job done.

Read the executive summary and download the full report.

Chris Worman is the Co-founder and Chief Partnership and Strategy Officer at Connect Humanity.

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