Despite Years Of Discussion Theres Still A Digital Divide

November 1, 2005       Todd Cohen      

Ten years ago, when he took a job in the Los Angeles office of Amnesty International, Joe Baker learned quickly about the big gap in technology resources between the corporate and nonprofit worlds.

In his previous job, conducting telecommunications research for Rockwell International, Baker had six computers in his office.

At Amnesty, the entire L.A. staff shared a computer modem, and once a month mailed a computer disc to the organization’s U.S. headquarters in New York City , where the headquarters staff synchronized databases mailed from all its offices and then returned the computer discs.

Today, as executive director of the San Francisco-based Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, or NTEN, Baker has the job of championing support for nonprofits in their use of technology, a task he said had changed dramatically in the past five years.

Five years ago, The NonProfit Times reported that small and mid-sized nonprofits were gaining access to hardware, software and training through donations and discounted package deals.

While today they typically have computers, Internet access, email and basic software applications, experts said, nonprofits still often lack the training and leadership to use that technology effectively, and are finding it tough to secure funding to pay for technology as an ongoing cost of doing business.

“There are very few nonprofits that don’t operate with email, a Web site, and a fairly rudimentary database for keeping track of donors and accounting functions,” said Barbara Chang, executive director of NPowerNY, a New York City nonprofit that provides tech support to local nonprofits and is part of the Seattle-based national NPower network.

Today, “many nonprofits are requesting more sophisticated uses of technology for work they do in the community,” she said. “It’s more expensive and requires more strategic vision on the part of nonprofits.”

Equally challenging for nonprofits, experts said, is the need to address the growing gap between Americans with access to technology and those without access.

After peaking in 2000, they said, public and private efforts to bridge the “digital divide” have declined, despite a widening gulf between digital haves and have-nots, particularly based on education, income and ethnicity.

“We’ve done a very good job at getting middle-class, mainstream America online,” said Andy Carvin, director of the Digital Divide Network at the EDC Center for Media and Community in Newton, Mass. “But we’ve still failed at addressing digital-divide issues as far as it affects low-income families, ethnic minorities, households with limited education and people with disabilities.”

Strategic technology

Flush with excitement about the Internet and the peak of the dot-com boom, nonprofits five years ago increasingly viewed technology as a basic operating tool, said Chang.

With basic hardware and software in place, she said, the tech issues nonprofits typically faced involved routine tech maintenance and support.

Today, while nonprofits still must deal with the upkeep of their software and the training to use it, they generally have integrated technology into their back-office operations, and now are “moving into mission-critical work” with their use of technology, she said.

“Nonprofits are requesting more sophisticated uses of technology for work they do in the community,” she said. “It’s more expensive and it requires more strategic vision.”

So, in addition to Internet connectivity and email, nonprofits want to use technology to track clients and find “more sophisticated applications that can have greater impact in the community,” she said. “It’s about changing an organization in the way it thinks about its work and the way it does its work.”

With funding from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies, both in New York City, for example, NPowerNY is working with The Children’s Aid Society to use technology to significantly expand its program to help pregnant teens manage their pregnancy, and to prevent high-risk teens from getting pregnant.

NPowerNY will help assess the charity’s current use of technology to support its operations, and find ways to shift to a tech-based system from a mainly paper-based system to track clients and match them with needed services.

Remote technology

As nonprofits think more about using technology strategically, they also are adjusting to a shift in the way technology is delivered. The past five years have seen big expansion in the number of “application service providers,” or ASPs, that provide a broad array of leased services to nonprofits, said Baker.

The growth of the ASP marketplace, offering services that range from email, fundraising and advocacy to client-tracking and outcomes-measurement, also has changed the way nonprofits treat the cost of technology, he said.

Five years ago, technology typically was seen as an up-front cost for which nonprofits might be able to secure funding by integrating it into the cost of a particular project or program.

But with ASP services now widely available, technology has become an ongoing cost of doing business, precisely the kind of operating cost that funders traditionally have been reluctant to cover, Baker said.

While they continue to face challenges in paying for technology, and figuring out who should operate and maintain it, nonprofits have changed the way they fund and staff their tech needs, experts said.

NTEN has shifted its focus from serving mainly technology assistance groups and consultants, to supporting nonprofit staff who handle technology.

Baker said fewer foundations are supporting tech-assistance providers or employing “circuit riders” that previously provided tech support to nonprofits the foundations funded. So NTEN now is concentrating on providing support and training directly to nonprofit staff.

Chang said funding for technology had become a big challenge for nonprofits. Five years ago, she said, funding increasingly was available to help address nonprofits’ basic tech needs because of the expectation by foundations that investing in technology would result in innovative nonprofit programs.

Yet while nonprofits back then had basic technology, it tended to be unstable and required a lot of work “before we could think about innovation and real change,” she said.

Funders “put a lot of money into what they hoped would be a huge transformation in the sector,” she said, “but when they didn’t see change right away, they became discouraged and weary about putting more money into it.”

Today, Chang said, some funders are beginning to shift their thinking about how they fund technology. “They’re realizing that it’s critically important to stabilize the back-office and technology infrastructure, and is part of the curve of moving to more strategic uses of technology,” she said.

Support gap

Small nonprofits may assign staff or volunteers to handle their tech needs, but even qualified staff may lack the time for tech work, and volunteers can come and go, creating gaps in continuity and making it hard to evaluate their work, according to a new study to be released next year.

The study, by the Institute of Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco, also found that a continuing divide between Americans with access to technology and those without access can directly affect the extent to which technology developed by nonprofits for constituents actually gets used.

One nonprofit studied by the institute had difficulty networking its client organizations located in poor neighborhoods where telecom lines were not reliable, for example, while a second nonprofit decided not to upgrade its Web site because constituents would have had to connect to it over telephone lines, freezing their own computers, said Carol Silverman, the institute’s research director.

“If you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” she said.

With funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the New York City-based Surdna Foundation, NTEN and NPower are leading a new study to measure the impact that technology assistance has on nonprofits.

Baker said the nonprofit sector was heading into a “third technology wave.” After equipping staff with computers and connecting them to one another, and then using the Internet and other technologies to connect themselves to supporters and launch a range of program activities, he said, nonprofits are starting to use the internet and technologies like cell phones to connect themselves to clients.

Education gap

While many nonprofits are trying to improve their own use of technology, some are focused on helping to bridge the digital divide for their constituents, particularly in the face of a big retreat in efforts to close that gap.

Federal and private support for tech-access efforts has plunged in the wake of a “perfect storm” of challenges that included the bursting of the dot-com bubble, 9/11 and the war on terrorism, Carvin said.

More Americans are online than five years ago, he said, yet those with less education still trail in using the Internet to plug into the new economy.

“Even if every single household in America had internet access,” he said, “as long as there’s a skills gap, there will be a digital divide.”

The Digital Divide Network has shifted from serving as a clearinghouse of news and resources to providing online discussion space and blogging tools to help its subscribers talk to and interact with one another and publish their own Weblogs.

Since the new site was launched last December, the number of subscribers has grown to more than 8,000 in more than 125 countries from 3,000 in roughly 80 countries.

Advances in technology also have outpaced advances in access to technology by underserved communities such as African Americans, Latinos and women, said Kavita Singh, executive director of the Community Technology Centers ’ Network, or CTCNet, in Washington , D.C.

Federal funding for community tech centers has been cut to $5 million this year from $65 million roughly five years ago, and is slated for elimination next year, Singh said.

CTCNet and its network of just over 1,000 members in all states, up from 300 five years ago, have shifted their focus from providing local technology access to helping to ensure that community uses of technology address community needs, Singh said.

“The promise of technology just to keep people in communication with each other has made a huge impact on the way people can go across borders and keep families connected,” Singh said.

Through its centers, she said, technology “continues to serve as a great equalizer for the social and economic needs of all people.”

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper at www.philanthropyjournal.org. He can be reached at tcohen@ajf.org.