Debunking Ten Myths
about Community Technology
Remarks Delivered at theAlliance
for Public Technology
and theNational Council of La
Raza Brownbag Lunch Event
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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