If you are reading this, you’ve crossed the digital divide. One in two people on the planet have not.
You can take advantage of an increasing array of digital products and services. Unconnected families cannot; and they are falling behind as work, education, healthcare, civic participation, and access to services provided by your grantees, are increasingly moving online. For unconnected families, the internet — once touted as a great equalizer — is becoming a wedge between the haves and have-nots.
With less than 0.05 per cent of all philanthropy invested in digital equity over the past decade, it is fair to say that philanthropy has largely ignored this issue. The primary reason I hear for doing so is ‘the market will provide, telecommunications operators will get the job done.’ They won’t. Even when subsidized to do so. It was painfully demonstrated in a Deloitte study calculating that the $54 billion of taxpayer dollars spent across various U.S. government programs over ten years increased internet adoption in the country by only 1 per cent. Providing affordable, high-speed internet to families in low-income areas simply isn’t in these companies’ business models.
The results of our persistent digital divide were painfully evident during the pandemic. In addition to the headlines many of us read, and conversations many of us had with our grantees, a fact buried in a TechSoup survey should give all of us in philanthropy pause. Of the nearly 12,000 organizations from more than 120 countries who responded to the survey, four in five said their services were disrupted during the pandemic because their communities didn’t have internet access. Even when our grantees could take their programs and services online, their communities could not access them. Millions of the world’s most marginalized people were left without vital support at their moment of greatest need because, as philanthropy and as a society, we’ve allowed the digital divide to persist.
This can and must change. Philanthropy can support pathways to digital equity — the state in which all people have the affordable, high-speed internet, tools and skills they need to participate in our digitalizing world —and ensure the communities we care about do not get left further behind. If our success is predicated on the success of our grantees, and their success is predicated on the increased quality of life for those they serve, and both are increasingly dependent on access to digital technologies, then we must engage.
The good news is there are clear ways to do so. Here are three ways philanthropy can begin to engage in ensuring digital equity.
In the short term
Two things. First, during the pandemic, many foundations began investing in the immediate digital needs of their grantees. Don’t stop. Do consider the kind of investments you made, and the kinds of durable infrastructure investments civil society will need to ensure they and their communities are able to fully participate online. The Technology Association of Grantmakers gives some great recommendations.
Second, help us map the nature of the divide as it relates to civil society and those we serve. The organization I co-founded, Connect Humanity, is conducting what will be the largest ever global survey on digital equity — available in 26 different languages and open until 31 August. The pain caused by persistent digital divides is perhaps understood now more than ever. Less understood is where and to what extent we in civil society have access to the building blocks of digital equity. We need this insight to build better pathways to digital equity. We’re conducting the survey with partners Civicus, Forus, NTEN, TechSoup Global Network and WINGS. Help us by completing and distributing the i____internet survey with your networks and grantees so that more voices are represented.
We will share all findings (in anonymous and aggregated form) so that we can collectively use it to work towards ending the digital divide.
In the longer term (but not too long, please)
Invest in people and organizations that have expertise in advancing digital equity — whether that’s building fibre internet in rural areas, running digital skills programs, or influencing policy that can bring down barriers to internet access. We don’t expect (or even think it is a good idea) that all foundations become digital equity funders. But, with digitalization so profoundly impacting the issues we’re invested in, funders should build an understanding of how digital technology influences their work and develop strategies to increase digital equity. That doesn’t mean all funders need to develop deep competency in digital, but as a sector, we must be prepared to invest in those who do.
Once released, the i____internet global survey analysis will provide a better understanding of the gaps faced by the sector and our communities. We will run a series of workshops with foundations and grantees about the findings and ways to engage. If you’re ready to begin that conversation, register your interest to join us.
Digitalization is happening. Digital equity depends on all of us. Philanthropy must engage in support of communities markets have failed. Together we can ensure communities come online, on their terms, with the tools and skills they need to thrive in our digitalizing world.
Chris Worman is the co-Founder and Chief Partnership and Strategy Office at Connect Humanity.