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Building Partnerships for Digital Equity: How Nonprofits, Corporations, and Governments Can Work Together

This article was published on:
September 6, 2023

Attaining an education, exploring career opportunities, networking with peers, finding jobs, paying bills, connecting with friends and family, and pursuing our passions — every facet of our lives depends on digital access. Yet, millions of Americans do not have access to reliable Internet.

Digital Equity: A group of people sit and stand around a desk, working together on a project. One of the people is looking at a tablet while the others are collaborating on a piece of paper.Credit: RF Studio on Pexels

In a digital world, Internet access isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.

The struggle of not being connected to the Internet has been felt for years, but it reached a peak during the start of the COVID pandemic. Since then, we have seen several private and public initiatives — programs, funding, and training — gain steam.

A problem as complex and layered as digital equity cannot be solved by a single entity alone. That is why it’s important for various stakeholders such as nonprofits, corporations, and governments to collaborate on closing the digital divide.

Understanding Digital Equity — The Need for Collaboration

Unequal access to the Internet isn’t a single-faceted issue. Advocates for digital equity have tried to address it by dividing it into categories — accessibility, affordability, and adoption. Each of these categories in itself is a mammoth-sized challenge.

So how can we address it? By bringing in experts in each of these areas and having them work together.

While corporations and governments can provide funding and resources through their corporate social responsibility efforts, nonprofit and community-based organizations provide on-the-ground information, community outreach, and distribution of services. These partnerships benefit communities by advancing digital equity and also work in favor of corporations and organizations who need citizens to be digitally empowered.

Collaboration Models: Ways in Which Nonprofits, Corporations, and Governments Can Work Together to Advance Digital Equity

Let’s explore some ways in which various types of entities and groups can utilize their own strengths, experiences, and resources to bridge the digital divide.

Planning and Strategy

One of the biggest challenges in addressing the digital divide stems from the scope of information available. To corral this large amount of information, collaboration at the time of planning and strategy can reap big benefits.

When nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies join forces with the communities they want to serve, they can discover nuanced problems and solutions to closing the digital divide.

The Chicago Digital Equity Coalition is an example of such a partnership. Launched in May 2022, the Coalition brings together community members impacted by the digital divide and organizations committed to eliminating digital inequities. Together, they host community conversations and design workshops that will help enhance digital equity.

Digital Equity Accelerator, a program designed by technology companies HP Inc. and Aspen Digital, is another example. This program selects nonprofit organizations working toward the digital inclusion of marginalized populations. The Accelerator aims to provide cash funding, hardware support, mentorship, and comprehensive programming to nonprofits so they can further their reach and impact. Founded in 2022, the program has helped organizations in Mexico, India, and the United States.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance is one of the most prominent U.S. nonprofits also putting these partnerships into practice. NDIA brings together over 600 nonprofit organizations, policymakers, and digital advocates to help bridge the digital divide. The organization provides support in the form of community calls, newsletters, and customizable tools to equip digital equity practitioners to further their work.

Data Sharing and Research

You may have heard the adage, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is true in several instances but becomes especially pronounced with a problem as widespread as digital inequity.

It’s only by measuring data accurately that we can identify disparities and ensure evidence-based decision-making. Accurate measurement is especially important when it comes to prioritizing funding for different areas of digital equity.

However, measuring this data isn’t easy. From a lack of personnel and financial resources to inaccurate or outdated data, obtaining information on digital equity is difficult. Additionally, data collection methods can vary from organization to organization or state to state making the information gathered inconsistent and difficult to interpret.

The Institute for Self-Reliance’s Affordable Connectivity Program dashboard is an example of a data-sharing tool that can be utilized by nonprofit organizations, corporations, and government agencies alike. The tool gives a detailed look at enrollment in the ACP program. This helps organizations understand the reach of the ACP, the available funding in the program, the cities with the highest or lowest enrollment, and more. By using this data, organizations and policymakers can plan what type of messaging will help them get closer to their goal of digital equity, or what types of programs need to be put in place to further that goal.

Similarly, the Federal Communications Commission’s recently updated National Broadband Map gives a granular view of the state of American broadband. In response to this view, FCC invites consumers, state, local, and Tribal government entities, and other stakeholders to help verify the accuracy of the data by filing challenges.

According to the FCC, challenges have already been submitted and reviewed for more than 4 million locations. FCC’s mapping team has also hosted sessions with government entities to respond to questions and provide technical training. This large-scale collaboration at a grassroots level is a great example of how digital equity advocates and stakeholders can work together to bridge the digital divide.

Infrastructure Development and Training Resources

While the weight of building and distributing Internet infrastructure often falls on government entities, corporations and nonprofit organizations also play an integral role in it. Mobile Citizen, for instance, works exclusively with schools, libraries, social welfare agencies, and telehealth nonprofits to provide low-cost Internet hotspots. These hotspots provide essential Internet connections to underserved communities.

The partnership between STEM Alliance in New York’s Westchester County and Mobile Citizen is an example of an infrastructure and resources partnership between like-minded organizations. The STEM Alliance provides STEM learning opportunities to bridge systemic gaps in science, technology, engineering, and math. The organization realized that to further its mission, it’d need to first bridge the digital gap that several of its students experienced. They did this by implementing a program called, Digital Equity Now, which enabled families and individuals to receive low-cost, reliable Internet hotspots from Mobile Citizen.

Events like the Nonprofit Technology Conference also encourage sharing of training resources and knowledge among nonprofit staff, volunteers, corporations, and other stakeholders. Mobile Citizen’s Chief Business Development Executive, Cassie Bair, spoke at the event in April this year. She shared how our nonprofit partners successfully used Internet hotspots to make a difference in their communities. Attendees learned about strategies for understanding the differences between technologies, tips on working within a tight budget, and learned ways to service the service beneficiaries better.

While corporations play a role in all facets of collaboration, they can especially place a huge dent in digital inequity by investing in infrastructure development and training. Large businesses have a significant budget allocated to fulfill their corporate social responsibility. Investing in Internet infrastructure is one of the simplest and most impactful ways to utilize that budget. In addition, investing in digital equity efforts isn’t just a philanthropic act for corporations that themselves rely on a connected community to advance their business goals.

Policy Advocacy

Planning, data gathering, and knowledge sharing make up the foundation. Policy advocacy is where digital equity efforts have the potential to gather more momentum. It is at this stage that digital equity stakeholders can influence systemic changes at the local, regional, and national levels.

Policy advocacy also defines what types of challenges will be addressed first. For instance, will digital skills training take precedence over expanding infrastructure or vice versa. Advocacy also ensures that diverse voices are heard in the policymaking process.
Mobile Citizen has, independently and in partnership with other digital equity groups, pursued policy advocacy to bridge the digital divide.

We work to support organizations like National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit that is at the forefront of policy advocacy. Its executive director, Angela Siefer spoke before a House Subcommittee to highlight the need for a national broadband strategy. Among other points, Angela’s talk encourages policymakers to support the creation of public-private partnerships across industries and geographies to support local digital inclusion programs. In 2022, Angela also advocated for sustained funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program which aims to connect all eligible households in the U.S. to the Internet.

The Office of Educational Technology (OET) also established a guidance resource to further digital equity for learners of all ages. The Digital Equity Education Roundtables (DEER) Initiative is a demonstration of this guidance resource. It seeks to close the digital divide and provide opportunities for learners to fully participate in a digital society.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) is also a strong presence in the digital equity advocacy space. It focuses on securing funding for educational technology and promoting digital equity. CoSN provides its members with tools and resources to be successful advocates for digital equity in their own communities. Several of our customers at Mobile Citizen are also members of CoSN.

Further Digital Equity With Mobile Citizen

At Mobile Citizen, we are committed to partnering with digital equity advocates to help bridge the digital divide. Several of our clients have used our services to equip their own teams to work more effectively whether on-site or remotely and also deployed Mobile Citizen hotspots in lending programs within their communities. We also encourage nonprofits working in the digital equity space to include our services in their grant applications. We believe that by joining forces we can make bigger, surer strides toward our common goal of digital equity.

To explore opportunities for your organization, please contact our experts in the Mobile Citizen Customer Service Center at 877-216-9603.