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Debunking Ten Myths
about Community Technology

Remarks Delivered at theAlliance for Public Technology and theNational Council of La Raza Brownbag Lunch Event
Washington, DC
May 13, 2004

Anthony G. Wilhelm, Ph.D.
Director, Technology Opportunities Program
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

Thank you, Sylvia and Eduardo and the Alliance for Public Technology for inviting me to speak. It is such a privilege to participate in one of your brown bag forums as a guest speaker. It has been more than a decade since I first started working with both APT and NCLR. When I was director of information technology research at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles, I worked with NCLR to improve telecommunications access for the Hispanic community. At about the same time, my relationship with APT began in pursuing universal service aims.

Over the past decade, APT has been a forthright, clear and strong voice for affordable, accessible and high-quality advanced services to all Americans with its compelling vision of "connecting each to all." There are two things that I especially appreciate about APT. First, its mission is dead center on with the highest ideals of our democracy. Anybody who cares about the health of our democracy should care about APT's agenda. Second, I value its diversity. I've always respected the diversity of its board and membership. APT's commitment to offer a platform for groups who often don't have a place at the table - Native Americans, Hispanics, the disability community and the American worker-is truly inspiring. Out of this diversity of experience has come an alliance that demonstrates that these groups working together and finding common cause on the big issues of the day are more effective than groups working at cross purposes in isolation.

I was asked to talk today about technology in the nonprofit community. It's a big topic, but I wanted to share what I've learned over the years engaged in research, evaluation, policy advocacy, web development and alliance-building (and now as a grant maker) in trying to achieve a more inclusive society in the digital age. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for much of my career, it is clear to me that technology can be an important tool in strengthening the sector-in delivering services, in organizing constituents, in providing information, and, importantly, in encouraging collaboration and participation in our economy and democracy. Technology is not a luxury. It's essential. One might go so far as to say the sector will be hard-pressed flourishing in the early twenty-first century without taking incremental (but decisive) steps to enter the digital age. Yet as we all know, a significant gap exists between this vision and the current reality of the sector, in terms of (1) access not just to advanced services but to basic information technology, (2) how the sector is thinking about technology and (3) the opportunities for the sustainability of nonprofit technology efforts (e.g., in the areas of technical assistance, innovation and organizational capacity building).

My remarks are framed as a debunking of some of the popular myths out there that I think detract from our efforts to strengthen nonprofits' use of technology to fulfill their missions. One fact about the sector that I think few would take issue with is that it's under-resourced. So when we talk about nonprofits and technology, we are talking about a whole lot of organizations that don't have the wherewithal to integrate technology effectively to fulfill their mission. In other words, when we talk about those who are served last by the fruits of technological advances, they are not just the poor-they are also the organizations that serve the poor and the disenfranchised. From my perch at the Technology Opportunities Program, I can tell you that many nonprofit organizations awarded funding tell us they could not have done what they are doing without these critical Federal resources.

The first myth I wanted to address deals with the perception that we have basically solved the technology gap in the nonprofit sector. Equipment is cheap and getting cheaper. Donation programs are saturating the nonprofit marketplace. And lots of free software and applications exist with support organizations available, dedicated to helping nonprofit organizations use technology effectively to fulfill their mission at no or low cost. We might call this the glass-half-full myth.

Well, on the infrastructure front, many nonprofits, especially small ones, in fact do not possess the tools they need to succeed in the digital age. According to an analysis by George Mason University professor Darrene Hackler, only about one-third of nonprofits with budgets under $1 million enjoy broadband options (e.g., DSL, T1, fractional T1). Most are still using old-fashioned dial-up connections. And many still use outdated equipment and old software versions. In short, an infrastructure divide exists within nonprofits, by and large according to size, as well as between NPOs and both the private and governmental sectors.

Groups such as Gifts in Kind, the National Christina Foundation, TechSoup, and others are doing tremendous work in donating equipment and offering tools to help build nonprofit capacity. But the demand for service outstrips the supply. Just take the TOP program. In 2003, we received requests for $269,098,914 from 570 different organizations. In the end, we could only make 28 awards totaling about $14 million.

In addition, the constituents whom many nonprofits serve are also the least likely to be online. The Children's Partnership has done some great work here, so I won't go into this. But suffice it to say that millions of people who are low literate, have disabilities or may speak a language other than English lack skills and have a hard time finding accessible, high-quality and germane content, services and information that can help them meet their life needs.

So the task of strengthening the sector with technology is clearly far from complete. Some would call the glass-half-full approach optimistic. I would agree. Many people believe that the marketplace is addressing the needs of communities, rich and poor, urban and rural, but I believe this is a vast oversimplification of reality-an overoptimism that can sometimes lead to complacency, believing that the job of digital inclusion is already complete. The focus on infrastructure also deflects attention from deeper divides within the nonprofit sector, which are organizational and capacity divides. Here I want to talk about another popular belief that pervades our thinking, which is the supply-side myth.

There's a great cartoon where Noah is building his Arc and when he's almost complete he asks God, "but where are the animals." And God responds, "build it, they will come." Of course, who would argue with God? So Noah builds the Ark, and the animals come. The story illustrates perfectly the mindset where organizations will invest in technology and expect that people and organizations will miraculously know what to do with it. The classic case is what we call the "productivity paradox" in business where companies invested heavily in computers and software but did not see productivity rise because they did not train their people. Similarly in some schools, administrators will invest in networked computers before the teachers have been sufficiently trained or have figured out how to integrate them into the curriculum. So ensuring there are ongoing professional development opportunities for staff are key, especially when technology is such a moving target.

At TOP, we will not fund infrastructure projects. We are project based and expect grantees to leverage existing infrastructure. Since we fund projects that address serious societal challenges-worker retraining, educational advancement, cultural enrichment-we expect applicants to devote significant resources to specific applications of infrastructure. A couple of years ago, the Morino Institute argued that organizations should be spending more on training and organizational development than on infrastructure. The CEO Forum recommended 70/30.

The reality is otherwise: most small NPOs are spending very little on training their people. Of NPOs with budgets under $1 million, a majority (56%) report they spend less than two percent of their budget on staff training.

The third myth is related to the second. It's the popular perception that technology is a magic bullet for many of the problems facing nonprofits. If you can't reach your customers effectively, then throw up a website. If you can't keep track of funders, then use a database. If you're not getting feedback from members, then launch a listserv. While all of these strategies and tools are fine, an organization might want to step back and ask itself some basic questions: What outcomes are we trying to achieve? Will the technology help us achieve them? Do we have the (internal) capacity and skills to plan and implement these strategies? Are they sustainable? Often, by asking these tough questions, organizations realize that technology requires change to produce change.

At TOP we have the philosophy that the model projects that spring out of the ingenuity of the American people aim to encourage the deployment of broadband infrastructure, services and applications throughout the Nation. So we are cultivating demand where communities identify pressing needs and devise ways in which advanced technologies can assist in addressing these needs. In the past, we made planning grants, which is another way of encouraging nonprofit organizations to forge alliances with other community partners to develop projects that leverage community assets. We expect applicants to devote significant attention to linking their technology plans to very real needs. Without a compelling problem statement, it appears organizations are often fishing for more equipment without demonstrating how these tools will produce positive outcomes in the lives of real people.

In the past TOP held conferences for grantees and interested nonprofits called Networks for People. The title reminds us that organizations don't succeed without dedicated, well-trained people. It is the networking of these people, working within strong organizations, that produces change. Technology does not produce change. People do. Our goal at TOP is to award grants to organizations that can impact people's lives in positive ways, to strengthen communities and to empower nonprofits seeking to meet community needs in innovative ways. Organizations sometimes look to technology to provide a Band-aid to cover over weaknesses in organizations. But adding technology will likely exacerbate and expose weaknesses in frail organizations. It will not correct them. It is like throwing a computer at a drowning man when what he really needed was a life preserver.

Let me given an example. With one organization looking to do creative stuff with youth and technology, youth development staff were given their own personal technology mentors and worked with the Morino Institute to develop strategies for using technology internally (to share ideas, build online curriculum and the like) and in the context of project-based learning, an approach that not only put the technology to good use but helped create a better youth-serving institution.

What we often overlook is that technology requires its own capacity. That is why some will portray technology as a giant sinkhole, a luxury, especially for organizations providing for "bread and butter" needs. [This debate rages in international development circles as well]. Nonprofit needs are revealed in surveys where folks respond that they can better serve their customers if key staff: (1) had better computer software training; (2) their desktops and peripherals were better maintained and supported; and (3) they had the ability internally or through outsourcing to enhance and update their websites.

Rather than seeing technology as a sinkhole, organizations have developed business plans and justified their investments based on clear expected returns on investment. For example, organizations are harnessing the power of the technology to build organizational capacity. One TOP grantee, the West Virginia University Research Corporation, delivered nonprofit management administration certification to over 100 nonprofit agency staff and managers through computer-based learning, two-way telecommunications and technical networking capacities. Many nonprofits participated in the project to enhance their operational effectiveness, noting that they lacked stability in human resources, information technology and financial management. The courses were cost effective and convenient for busy nonprofit staff.

Many nonprofits are serving individuals with little access and skills using technology. More basic, they may speak a language other than English. They may have literacy challenges. They may have a disability.

Unfortunately, networks are often built with early adopters in mind, people from high socioeconomic backgrounds. This is illustrated by Darrel West's e-government surveys in which he finds that government websites are more often than not unfriendly to people who are low literate (e.g., text written at 12th-grade level or above) or who have a disability (only 24% of state and federal websites meet Section 508 guidelines).

One way to mitigate this is to encourage community participation in project development. One very promising project we funded last year is called the St. Louis WizKids. This youth-directed project's goal is to increase student performance by using a high-bandwidth neighborhood wireless network to facilitate online learning and student performance tracking in a deprived neighborhood just north of downtown St. Louis. Youth developed the project and decided to divide themselves into learning teams to participate in tutorials, reading groups and writing projects, such as maintaining web logs and building a community portal, which the kids design themselves. Many of the online tools and software will be chosen by the students, with assistance from caring professional adults.

In addition, we have learned that projects should be built where people are, not where you would like them to be. In one project right here in Northeast, TOP funded the Community Preservation Development Corporation to put networked computers into residents' homes in apartments in Edgewood Terrace, a predominantly low-income housing community. Connected to broadband telecommunications capability, residents were able to learn skills to enhance educational and employment opportunities and communicate with others via email.

Nonprofit leaders run the gamut in their perspective on the true cost of technology. As I mentioned earlier, some say it's a sinkhole, an investment not worth the expense. Others are overly optimistic and think that they will save money, since doing outreach, say, over the Internet is vastly cheaper than printing materials and sending them via snail mail. So those who believe the latter might take their dissemination budget and invest it in a website and transact their business in cyberspace. Great idea, right? Well, yes and no, so long as nonprofits are aware of what we call the total cost of ownership, a term developed in detail by the Gartner Group in the 1990s and applied to the education space by Sara Fitzgerald. This means that something as basic as developing a website can have costs associated with it-in infrastructure, people, training-that you didn't anticipate (and didn't necessarily budget for). In factoring these costs and doing budgets, knowing these costs can help nonprofits think creatively about how they can deflect these costs by working with partners, recruiting volunteers (many smaller nonprofits rely on volunteers for technical support) and finding donated and free equipment. Many small orgs can do a lot with a computer and a phone line. But if you're going to do more, know that hidden costs and unanticipated consequences are part and parcel of entering the digital age.

Since APT's mission is to ensure that advanced services are available to everyone, I wanted to spend some time highlighting a couple of exciting projects using advanced services to empower communities and create jobs. As I mentioned earlier, TOPs job is to encourage demand for advanced services by developing model projects where these tools are proven levers in creating economic opportunity and social inclusion. APTs broadband reports over the past couple of years have been excellent in documenting strategies for demand generation as well as underscoring the transformative potential of telecommunications for people with disabilities.

Something that Vint Cerf often says is that the Internet is for everybody. One myth out there is that broadband is only for large organizations. We might want to go one step more and say broadband Internet is for everybody, including the nonprofit sector, since the benefits of broadband are undeniable. In saying this, we also believe that advanced services can help the little guy, they can be the great equalizer. Just to give you two quick examples.

One grantee has developed and implemented the Technology for All (TFA) JobTech program to create livable wage jobs in low-income communities through innovative utilization of technology tools connected to and utilized by existing Community Technology Centers (CTCs) serving those communities. Pecan Park in Houston was once a flourishing community thanks to its close proximity to the Port of Houston. With the demise of shipping industries, Pecan Park has had to reinvent itself. To attract livable-wage jobs,TFA-Houston trains and employs persons for jobs within easy walking distance of their homes through the development of community technology capacity. The JobTech business model relies on innovative relationship with Dimension 4, a for-profit company from Seattle, to bring outsourced jobs to CTCs serving low-income communities. This economic and community development would not have been possible without building a shared fiber loop which will be the true backbone for distributing work to trained contract employees at participating CTCs in the city.

The other example I want to raise is wireless broadband. A very good project we funded last year is called project LendRight. The project works with entrepreneurs of color in New York City by making wireless broadband technology an integral part of the lending process. How this works is loan officers are equipped with wireless PDAs to process loan applications at the point of delivery, providing personalized service and building community trust while potentially greatly expanding access to capital for promising minority businessmen and women.

The bottom line is broadband provides invitation to do things that narrowband does not afford. Now that the Edgewood project is complete, I can report that the return on investment here was tremendous - households that earned on average $7,000 annually in 1993 were earning over three times as much this year! Residents were starting their own e-businesses; they were strengthening their sense of community by developing their own newsletter (and a community intranet, EdgeNet, is up and running); students are engaged in online learning afterschool, increasing their time on task.

The fact that advanced telecommunications tools are faster is terrific for nonprofits with these tools. But advanced services, including wireless, coupled with the power of the Internet, allow organizations to do things differently. So when nonprofits focus on the web as a form of outreach, for example, they might view it as reaching more people, in a kind of broadcast model, in a way that's cheaper than print. That's great! But the technology allows much more than this. I would just mention portability, interactivity, customization and personalization as some of the possible benefits nonprofits can tap.

One of our grantees from last year is the Wireless Telehealth Network in rural Michigan. They're using a Wi-Fi system to extend wireless broadband connections to nursing homes, with wireless tablet PCs at residents' bedsides to establish virtual visits between residents and clinicians, brokered by nursing home staff.

To personalize and to customize services really helps to re-engage people in learning, in their communities and in the economy. One grantee, the Latino Technology Network, is using a sophisticated online series of training and learning modules available in English and Spanish and provides a wide range of custom content creation and publication tools.

Another project that assists young people with serious disabilities is PatchWorx which is creating an online Circle of Support Across America to serve more than a half million children in the United States between the ages of 5 and 18. Hospital and home-bound children say that they only ones who really understand what they are going through are other youngsters facing similar challenges, so this online network will provide a support network with the goal of strengthening life skills of these young people.

So the exciting thing about the advanced tools is how they can engage and empower.

A couple of years ago, Jim Bohland from Virginia Tech did some research for us on community technology sustainability issues. Not surprisingly, he found that those community technology centers most likely to achieve high levels of sustainability are those with robust partnership networks. In this regard, organizations are able to sustain existing services - and even plan for expansion - by tapping local resources. Nonprofit partners often contribute in-kind resources (space, volunteers) and public and private institutions provide cash and expertise (since our grantmaking is limited, we see the contribution of our expertise as critical in assisting grantees in particular and the nonprofit community in general).

Of course with the recent shakeout, obviously larger nonprofits and those that affiliate endure and hopefully expand. With savvy use of technology, hopefully smaller nonprofits will also find ways to thrive in the digital age. This is essential given that the nonprofit sector is increasingly pressed to address social needs unmet by governments and private actors.

At TOP, we believe that a project is built on sand that does not have a strategy to sustain itself. TOP provides seed money with the expectation projects will build in from the beginning strategies to preserve and expand themselves in outlying years. We have an excellent success rate in terms of the percentage of grantees in full operation or even expanded and of those not succeeding, almost all cite funding issues as overriding.

Technology has the potential to transform the sector. These tools are for everyone, and they can enable things that prior technological advances could not. That is why it's imperative that nonprofits integrate telecommunications tools and information technology into their work. Taking one step at a time will add up in the end to a sector that's stronger, more robust and able to meet society's diverse needs in new and innovative ways.

Thank you.


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