“Traditional foundations have had difficulty properly addressing a new breed of proposals I refer to as ‘Dot Corgs’. These are hybrid Internet projects with a core social component (.org) and a supplemental revenue-generating potential (.com). They are a direct outgrowth of the Internet revolution coupling low entry costs and huge reach with the unique information and services some entrepreneurial NGO’s can provide.” (MediaChannel, June 2000)
Over the last year the catchphrase “Bridging the Digital Divide” has entered the vernacular. It has many different definitions and each week somewhere in the world representatives of different sectors meet to discuss ways of partnering to resolve it. Unfortunately, most are talk fests with few results save the all-too-occasional cross sector collaboration. The phrase itself has become code for “How can various sectors with disparate corporate cultures and different languages collaborate using a new technology medium to solve old problems”. The Internet is a natural tool for collaboration and aggregation, but it is only effectively leveraged if the collaborators speak the same language or at least understand each other.
Successful partnerships are a product of trust, mutually desired objectives and an understanding of each other’s position. In the case of the digital divide, the players are focused on trying to resolve the problems, while forgetting they still do not understand each other very well. Each sector perceives the Internet as it relates to itself. Very often there is little understanding of how potential partners across sectors perceive and relate to the Internet. This article attempts to define those perceptions within each sector to facilitate more workable cross-sector partnerships to bridge the digital divide. General weaknesses and strengths in each sector are highlighted and best practices discussed.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and the Digital Divide
NGO’s are the front line troops tackling civil society and development issues. Funding institutions have two main options to support the social sector. The first is to create and fund a program from scratch. The second and often better option is funding a local NGO that has the credibility, network of contacts, understanding and trust already developed in the community it serves. What NGO’s need most in the Internet space is an understanding of how they can more effectively facilitate their missions, technical and financial help in defining their net presence and assistance employing online tools effectively.
Leveraging the Internet is a daunting task for many NGO’s. They have historically survived by owning their information and constituents. This constituted their value and substituted for significant financial assets. Yet this behavior is antithetical to effectively leveraging the Internet to meet their missions. Because of capacity resource constraints, many continue to be behind the technology curve. The technology is not intuitive and many NGO’s don’t have the requisite experience with it. Consequently, many still mistakenly judge their organization’s value on pre-Internet criteria and modes of operation.
The real transforming effect of the Internet is its breakdown of the information hierarchy, (disinter-mediation). Historically, the boundary to knowledge dissemination was that it was owned and distributed in an unequal hierarchy, from doctor to patient, lawyer to client, teacher to student, car salesman to buyer, etc.. The information owner set the criteria and price for its dissemination. The Internet has broken this barrier by eliminating impediments to global information sharing, thus equalizing the relationship between those who “own” information and those who want it. Information is becoming a commodity whose value is determined by all who have access to it. This fundamentally changes the role of the information owner to a value-added knowledge facilitator. The Internet provides lots of information, but trusted sources are still needed to filter and interpret it to turn it into knowledge.
For NGO’s, the challenge is understanding that information once unique to them is now widely available over the Internet. These new information sources may be qualitatively better, worse or similar. If they are leveraging their Internet presence effectively and developing online communities around it, they directly challenge the continued viability of NGO’s not doing so. This is true even if the latter presently have better quality content and larger constituencies. Many NGO’s mistakenly believe the data they amassed pre-Internet is still valued at the higher costs incurred to collect it. The reality is, once that information is available online, from any source, both the value and cost to collect it are significantly reduced. Organizations that understand this new reality share their information and constituents with like-minded peers. The worth of their information is not derived from its ownership, but by the value-added services they provide turning it into knowledge for their constituents. They leverage their resources and fulfill their missions more effectively by accumulating new constituents from like-minded organizations they share information and links with.
Aggregation of content allows NGO’s with quality content, important contributions to make and low advertising budgets to be found more easily on the Internet. Google tracks about 8 billion pages on the Internet. Current search engines track only about 25-30% of the existing information. For NGO’s like ACLU, with a well-branded name and matching domain, a large offline constituency, the smarts to establish an early web presence and good positioning on search engines, links etc. being found may not be so problematic. But for most NGO’s pooling content and constituencies in some form is an imperative if they wish to take full advantage of growing their constituencies on the Internet around particular issues of importance that multiple organizations deal with in a particular area. This form of cooperation at least partially offsets the advertising budgets NGO’s lack to make new constituents aware of their work. For the smaller organizations, it may mean banding together and collaborating on Internet web site development and content generation. For most organizations it will probably mean linking their sites and sharing their information with a site aggregator – a third party trusted source that brings together like minded sites under an umbrella site acting as a hub into the larger community.
An excellent example is Oneworld.org, the human rights and development site aggregator. OneWorld spiders information from each of its site members. Live editors categorize the information and format it as the OneWorld entry point for those seeking access to the human rights and development sector on the web. Individual members still have their sites and their autonomy. Entry is just simplified from one well-branded access point for these sectors. OneWorld edits information for different age groups, to appeal to a broader constituency, and provides some value-added content of its own. It has a variety of interactive tools that foster communities and draw people back to the site to visit often. This “stickiness” creates a vibrant issue-based community that grows along with the Internet providing all participating sites a significant value-added entry point for their content.
A commercial entity or an unscrupulous aggregator can easily create a portal site by pulling information on a given topic if they know how to market well on the Internet and in fact its done all the time for popular online search terms. NGO’s need to understand that information aggregation and the creation of communities is a natural component of the Internet. If they do not do it, someone else will – and without the trusted sources or credibility NGO’s bring to the table. Commercial sites understand that being first on the Internet is important because being second makes it that much more difficult to draw an audience away from the first. Fortunately, OneWorld was an early Internet adopter and as a trusted human rights aggregator, it will be much harder for a less relevant or credible source to enter this space in future.
It is very difficult to push people or organizations to embrace change unless they own the idea. People have a natural aversion to change especially if it is perceived as scary, complicated, or costly. At the same time there is a natural human tendency to want what others have, particularly if it perceived as good. Funders can do most to help NGO’s adopt to the Internet by funding early adopters who use the technology for effective capacity building and by supporting well-defined aggregation initiatives. It is better to work with early adopter NGO’s that believe in the transforming effect of the technology. They are committed to making it work, and thus the chances for a successful outcome are higher. It is also easier to promote a successful initiative that other less progressive institutions will buy into later once they see they are not benefiting from it. The door should always be open for the stragglers to join later. Conversely, embarking on projects that well-placed institutions or individual team members are not bought into at the outset is a recipe for disaster and very often the reason projects fail.
Some NGO’s have excellent initiatives, but aren’t ready to partner with others to leverage them. They may seek funding for their own projects in order to monopolize a leadership position or channel limited funding to their organizations. Funders should encourage NGO’s with similar proposals to collaborate on joint initiatives before being funded. Funding should not be provided to one institutional proposal over another similar one unless clear qualitative differences or focuses between institutions is found and collaboration is really not possible.
Finally, support should be given to NGO’s in the business of delivering successful technology solutions and working in the arena of the digital divide. The Internet Society has done an excellent job of providing training to developing countries starting out on the Information highway. I can state from firsthand experience that most countries in the developing world began on the Internet by sending delegates to this highly effective, intensive training program. A number of important policy organizations and associations are also involved in insuring NGO’s and individuals have a say in Internet governance as well as advocating for appropriate Internet policy throughout the world. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) are just a few of the entities that occupy this important space.
Governments, Multi-laterals and the Digital Divide
Governments and multi-laterals have been grouped together because they tend to have many of the same issues regarding the digital divide. Some very important independent multi-laterals also cannot help but orbit in the “gravitational sphere” of the countries, (and their politics) which support them with funding.
It has often been commented that in doing development work in Central and Eastern Europe, OSI was far more effective with far less money than many of the government agencies and multi-laterals providing support. To be fair, it had a very different mandate. OSI was focused on taking risks, and demonstrating successful pilots working with constituencies ready to facilitate change. Governments generally don’t have that luxury. They serve constituencies who encompass the entire political and social landscape, and these constituents lobby to have any project meet all interests. Consequently many projects end up as large compromises designed to be implemented at the outset to satisfy a diverse a range of interests. A system of rules and procedures is inevitably set up to meet all litmus tests resulting in a nightmare application and project reporting process. These politically expedient methods of project management are antithetical to success.
Every good project manager knows that you do not compromise on objectives that you know will bring project success, and you must be willing to throw out a plan of action if it is not working rather than sticking to a set of guidelines that doom it to failure. If the application and project management process is overly bureaucratic, many people will not apply or sign on to partner. That is exactly what happens in the real world to many of these government and multi-lateral projects. Many organizations do not approach government funded initiatives because the cost of managing the process and meeting all the bureaucratic requirements is not worth getting involved. As a result many government initiatives around the world are flush with money, but are as useful as a giant Trojan hamster – a wonder to behold, but don’t get too close.
Given the fact that governments are often stuck with project design and implementation paradigms the constituencies they answer to generate for them, they should be smart enough to stick with what they are good at and avoid what they are not. What operational projects are governments good at funding? Large, costly construction projects like dams and bridges and highways. These are tangible deliverables with fewer complications attached to them than development projects designed to change people’s lives by modifying behaviors. Given the inequities in commercial sector funding of telecommunications build-out in the developing world, both governments and multi-laterals trying to bridge the digital divide have an important and unique role to play supporting the build-out of infrastructure.
Multi-laterals have many of the same issues satisfying constituents and developing bureaucratic procedures as governments do, but to a lesser or greater extent depending on the agency. Like government projects, they also suffer from dysfunctional project management issues. Every business knows that its focus must be on satisfying client needs. Often these agencies think they know better from a development what their local clients really need. Consequently they employ an “if you build it, they will come” approach which often does not work. Another common mistake is employing a highly paid foreign consultant to jet in for a few days, write a report about poorly understood local circumstances and then jet out again instead of employing local trusted sources to define the problem and its resolution. Many multi-laterals are managed by people without technology experience who rely on support without being able to assess expertise. With few notable exceptions, my experience with multi-laterals implementing technology projects to bridge the digital divide has not been very positive. It is even more depressing to see tax dollars wasted on dysfunctional methodologies.
Because government and multi-lateral positions tend to attract politicos and diplomatic types to their management ranks, departments within agencies are often managed as if they were separate countries with well- delineated turf. Since management practices tend to be hierarchical, these “country-departments” are not run as republics or democracies but rather as kingdoms, or in the worst cases, well entrenched feudal fiefdoms. Despite the best intentions of a leader who oversees an organization that has fallen victim to this management style, the fact is, what goes on in each little fiefdom is the dominion of the departmental manager. For a potential partner or grantee this is a nightmarish experience if a need to work cross departmentally exists.
The situation is compounded working across multi-lateral institutions. Getting multi-laterals to combine resources to leverage an activity is a daunting task. Most wish to reinvent the wheel by creating their own infrastructure. This cycle was broken in Kosovo. Working with the International Rescue Committee and Markle Foundation, Paul Meyer managed to get multi-lateral organizations to work together and create a local entity to manage Internet connectivity. A commercial company donated satellite space for a given time period to the effort providing an impetus for partnership. The result reduced overall costs to each organization and created an entity that was self-sustaining within a year of its creation by providing the best and most reliable connectivity out of that country. The difficulties Paul encountered to accomplish this are a testament to his staying power and ingenuity – he was involved on the ground for a year to accomplish this feat getting the various organizations to buy into it. Unfortunately, it may require the same herculean effort in the next crisis situation.
While critical of government programs and multi-laterals in the approaches they currently take, I believe they have an important role to play in bridging the digital divide. As mentioned above, they can implement telecommunications infrastructure in the developing world to sectors under-invested in by the commercial sector. They can help foster commercial and public sector investment. For example, under the Clinton Administration, the US commerce department arranged “meet and greet” sessions, bringing experienced people across sectors together with those that wished to enter a particular geography to discuss local issues and cooperation.
Governments are effective setting the tone, by providing policy statements in support of programs to bridge the digital divide, and acknowledging working models. They can assist developing world governments support Internet-friendly policies through the provision of expertise, training and aid to policy makers who are responsible for such legislation. The Digital Peace Corps idea proposed by various governments to provide technologists with an interest in doing socially responsible technology work abroad is a good idea as long as it is managed appropriately and real deliverables can be assessed.
Multi-lateral agencies with field offices in many countries have an opportunity to bring local people together across sectors, calling on outside resources to help develop in-country expertise to deal with digital divide issues in a political, economic, legal, and social context. They may be an excellent entre for other funders wishing to do funding work locally, if they understand the local scene and potential partners. Both governments and multi-laterals collect copious amounts of data and write reports that are often underutilized by potential funders. For example, some excellent developing country data is available on the World Bank’s web site. The UN is exceptional at providing developing country rating reports that countries compete to increase their standing on, and potential donors and commercial entities utilize to assess investment and focus. The same can be done for information society related indexes with UN branding and credibility.
Multi-laterals, doing operational development work in the digital divide area, must listen more to local constituencies and develop projects based on real local need versus perceived need as defined by inter-agency officials. They must be flexible and fund local initiatives. A few multi-laterals and government aid agencies do distinguish themselves in this area. The UNDP has allowed OSI access to the unique resources it brings to the table in workable project partnerships locally. It has effectively brought people together across sectors to work on Internet policy issues in some countries as well. It is one of the first multi-laterals to have developed a relationship with a major corporate partner (CISCO) to fund digital divide projects focusing on poverty. Notable in this latter example is that to facilitate this partnership, a totally independent organization, Net Aid, is being created outside the UNDP bureaucracy. NATO has done some infrastructural-funding in Central and Eastern Europe, but it is more notable for the network training and management conferences it supports working with local and regional associations. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and International Development Research Council (IDRC) are standouts in doing technology and development work.
Foundations and the Digital Divide
U.S. Foundations have been slow to adopt technology for a number of reasons. In the late 80’s and early 90’s other sectors of the economy were pressured by external competition to overhaul their organizational structures and become more efficient. Because their funding is endowment-based, traditional foundations benefited from these changes and consequent increases in their investment portfolios without having to change much. Foundations have never been the bastions of technical leadership in any case. Like NGO’s, they tend to be behind the technology curve, not because they do not have the funds, but because management has not fully understood its implications. That’s changing, slowly, with a new group of senior executives heading foundations. Few foundations still have standalone or technology funding programs and most prefer to roll them into their current funding sectors. Unfortunately, many of the program directors who head these sectors may be expert in their particular field, but do not have the expertise to assess technology proposals. Most foundations do not enlist their internal IS staff to review or assist with technology proposals for their programs. Foundations are typically divided into discreet program verticals. IT often represents an administrative vertical alien to the program side of the equation except to maintain its back office hardware and software needs. Unfortunately, its assistance in translating technical program initiatives remains underutilized.
Traditional Foundations operate on a number of principles antithetical to the Internet culture. The proposal review and approval process can take months and multiple board meetings. Unfortunately, Internet proposals have a short shelf life. If they take longer than six months to approve, they may as well be rewritten. Foundations tend to operate on fixed program budgets cast at the beginning of the year while technology is an ever-changing animal and requires quick venture capital to seize opportunities. An interesting characteristic of traditional foundations is that they do not have a culture of cooperation. Foundation boards tend to analyze different sectors, determine if there are other foundation players, and if there are, look elsewhere for their own unique niche.
Traditional foundations have had difficulty properly addressing a new breed of proposals I refer to as ‘Dot Corgs’. These are hybrid Internet projects with a core social component (.org) and a supplemental revenue-generating potential (.com). They are a direct outgrowth of the Internet revolution coupling low entry costs and huge reach with the unique information and services some entrepreneurial NGO’s can provide. Hypothetically these should be a funder’s dream; socially responsible projects with enough income generating potential to make them less likely candidates for continued subsidies. But as it turns out, they do not fit neatly into foundations’ sectoral portfolios. The fact that they generate revenue is ironically sometimes what disqualifies them for funding because foundations do not have the appropriate metrics to distinguish them from pure business ventures. Subsequently the Amazon.com equivalents of the social sector are not being funded properly and many are not meeting their potential. Worse yet, some are being forced to simply abandon their core Dot Org missions entirely to become Dot Coms because they cannot find public sector support.
Traditional, east coast foundations, many founded during the industrial revolution, are being pressured by their grantees to address technology proposals. While NGO’s have been slow to adopt this technology, five years into the Internet revolution they realize the importance of being a player in this field. Unfortunately, many proposals are not well developed and the NGO’s do not have the resources to do a better job of developing their on-line presence. Nor do foundations often have the personnel to properly review the proposals or to offer good technology advice to NGO’s.
Traditional foundations are also being pressured by the new kids on the block, west coast foundations funded by new information economy wealth. The new upstarts know how to cooperate and leverage their technical and financial resources. They are also very comfortable with the concept of exploiting unallocated funds or “venture capital” to solve development problems. But these new foundations have their own limitations. They are largely untested in the development field. While they know how to identify a problem and spend money on it, they are just developing the experience and personnel networks of the traditional foundations to work with NGO’s in communities to affect long term change. Development work is not like selling technology. You cannot simply go in, fix the problem, and leave. If it was that easy, the market would have already dealt with these problems. Bridging the digital divide requires understanding people’s problems before applying technology to solve them. It requires a significant time commitment, lots of training, nurturing and hand holding. Many of the new social philanthropists see the world from a very specific vantage point based on their own experiences. Their world perspective is primarily shaped by CNN-type news bytes between 10-15 hour stints in front of a computer screen while they were in the process of creating the new information economy. To date their funding has tended to mirror their interests and experiences. Many focus on local domestic issues, the environment, pet hobbies, or training projects of one sort or another.
There is nothing wrong with these foci, and no doubt there is good being done. However, with two billion people making under $2 per day around the world and another two billion making under $1, developing world issues are for more compelling and require more than the limited focus they currently receive. The Internet is already seen in many places as another aspect of Western imperialism. By not focusing more of the wealth on these intractable issues in the developing world and instead focusing on problems in their our own back yard, the new foundations are further fostering the idea that this new information revolution is not for everyone. To be fair there are examples of inroads being made in this area; both the Gates and Intel Foundations are making significant contributions in the field of healthcare and teacher training abroad. Cisco networking academies are also training people all over the world in the use of network technology.
The most important thing the old and new foundations can do to bridge the digital divide is to forge better working relations with each other and then combining their resources to work across sectors. The old notion of each foundation focusing on niche sectors is obsolete in the new information economy. Foundations must work together on technology related issues, not only because that is the nature of the Internet but because most foundations don’t have the requisite expertise to go it alone. Traditional foundations need to change the way they address technology proposals, evaluating them more quickly and setting aside some venture funding to take advantage of opportunities. The newer foundations need to expand their horizons and learn more about working effectively in the developing world. Both inside and outside the U.S. they need to learn from their older peer foundations about leveraging the NGO’s that exist around salient social sector issues. Their expertise can be leveraged in new ways using the Internet to deal with development issues. Western foundations with their close links to founding corporations present an incredible opportunity for private sector partnership for all foundations.
Finally the foundations must be more innovative in the proposals they review and fund. The hybrid Dot Corgs discussed above will only become more prevalent and will continue to cut across sectors. In addition, there are also some socially responsible Dot Coms such as Novica.com that works with NGO’s supporting artisans in the developing world to bring their products to retail and wholesale outlets. Foundations must be able to work together like the venture capitalists do polling funds to support the social component of these “best of breed” socially responsible ventures whether they start out as Dot Orgs or Dot Coms. This is further outlined in the section on the commercial sector where the necessity for both foundation and commercial support for these ventures is explained.
Some of what is being suggested is already happening but too slowly to match the speed of technological change and need. A number of hybrid “social venture” technology projects are making their rounds at the more progressive old and new foundations, and are being co-funded. Foundations like Rockefeller, Pew, and OSI have separate venture capital arms or management structures that allow grants to be reviewed and funded quickly. Foundations like AOL have put the talents and technical resources of the AOL Corporation to work developing important technical resources and tools for the NGO and foundation community at the site: networkforgood.org. What is needed is a more cohesive strategy and commitment.
The New Breed of Corporate Foundations & Social Value Investors
Commercial entities have an important role to play in regard to projects with a socially responsible component. Companies and individuals that have created the new breed of foundations have different relationships with these institutions than most of their older East Coast foundation counterparts. In some cases the founding company and the foundation are closely linked in order to leverage the resources of both to achieve the social mission. A good example is Cisco’s Networking Academies. Some of the new foundations are managed entirely by for-profit holding companies. In some there is a clear divide between the founder/founding company and the foundation. This may even go so far as mandating not focusing on technology issues at all. The older East Coast foundations do not, for the most part, have living donors to contend with, and in many cases, do not even have the donor’s family still on the board.
The new foundations and their relationships with corporate entities have caused some concern and discussion in the foundation community. However, these debates sometimes obfuscate the real issue, which is, are the new entities sticking to the principles of social responsibility in their funding paradigms? If they are not, there is an issue, if they are then there is no issue. The Internet has spawned a whole new breed of projects, collaborations, and entities, and this needs to be accepted. If a corporate foundation entity meets the IRS litmus tests and is doing socially responsible work, than how it structures itself to meet a socially responsible mission should not be the focus of concern.
There is one real concern: When approached by a socially responsible project with profit-making potential, does a corporate foundation or social venture capitalist support the socially responsible elements by providing a grant or making a program related investment? Or is it kicked up to the investment folks at corporate who strip away its socially responsible elements to make it a purely profitable venture? Or do both things occur? Because of their mission-based orientation, Foundations must do what they can to preserve the socially responsible elements of a project even while investing in those projects with revenue generating and thus sustainable potential. Maintaining this critical balance is the real challenge facing foundations. It is where the conflict of interest potential is strongest for foundations with close links to their corporate parents or to social venture capitalists.
There are a number of solid, socially responsible projects with revenue generating potential circulating now. Many have been turned away by the public sector because their focus and the revenue potential is not well understood or does not fit neatly into this or that funding portfolio. Meanwhile, these “social ventures” are wooed by investors that recognize their income generating potential. They wish to buy into the project as long as some core socially responsible elements considered unprofitable are dropped. This is a terrible catch-22 causing many civil sector projects to either languish or abandon their civil society mission to go “.com”.
The New Breed of Social Value Ventures
The Internet has created many new paradigms including a new class of ventures that must be evaluated for their social as well as their profit potential at the outset. If treated purely as business ventures by the foundation and business communities, a real opportunity is lost to create and nurture sustainable, socially responsible projects. If you pull the wings off a butterfly it is still technically a butterfly but it looses a heck of a lot in the transformation. The difference between looking at these projects as pure business versus social ventures with sustainable development components lies in the project’s successfully meeting a social mission in order to become profitable. As pure business ventures defined by traditional business school metrics, many of these projects do not meet the appropriate criteria unless the clients they are trying to satisfy or their mission is refocused. As soon as that refocusing occurs, the social element is lost. However many initiatives that at first glance would not be considered commercially viable become so once they are successful at meeting their original mission. This is true because there is a natural tendency to coalesce around entrepreneurial success stories whether they be financially or socially focused. The Grameen micro-lending bank and cell phone project is a good example. Children’s Television Workshop/Sesame Street, The Newshour/Macneil Lehrer Productions, National Geographic Magazine/National Geographic productions are all examples of traditional socially responsible projects with successful profit making components.
Many socially responsible Internet sites have unique content to offer and loyal communities around them — the basic ingredients for success on the Internet. If they are marketed correctly after fulfilling their core missions, leveraging their online presence to promote sustainability is possible. Because these organizations are used to doing more with less, often times their Internet presence is developed at a fraction of the cost of creating a pure Dot Com site. While they may not end up generating as much money as an Ebay.com, they also have far less downside risk attached to them. If they are mission oriented, there are always people who volunteer time and energy to maintain the mission. A Dot Com that fails goes bankrupt, while a Dot Corg that fails most probably becomes a Dot Org continuing to fulfill a socially responsible mission. Occasionally, one can score a Sesame Street type success story.
There is a unique opportunity to nurture a sector of the Internet that isn’t strategically developed to satisfy both commercial and public sector interests. To deal with social sector projects that have revenue generating potential, the project should be analyzed with two different sets of metrics. Ideally, a third party incubator with unique characteristics is employed with business, legal, technology and development expertise attached to it. The socially responsible core of the project (that which offers the unique content that draws a community) is analyzed for its ability to meet its core social mission. This analysis is provided to a partnership of foundation funders giving them the level of comfort they need from a third party that due diligence on the viability of sustainable social mission has been done. The revenue generating aspects of the project are analyzed with the appropriate business metrics and then marketed to the business community, assuming as a prerequisite, that the project meets its social objectives. The resulting enterprise would be run like a news organization. The business division manages the entire operation, focusing on profitability, while the editorial staff (or program staff in this case) controls the socially responsible content and communities they develop to make the site unique, attractive and credible to people in the first place. Such an enterprise would generate revenue while at the same time meeting its social mission, or it might start out as a not-for-profit venture with a clear for-profit mandate once that mission was met. Or it might be a for-profit venture that had a socially responsible component clearly managed as such. Each project must be evaluated on its own merits.
As a real example, OSI funded a project called Probono.net. It is an online resource for lawyers who wish to do free legal work. This is a specialized area of law and if lawyers have to root around to find resources in addition to doing work for free, they are less likely to volunteer. No “.com” law site would have thought of doing this nor would they have had access to the legal aid community resources that the OSI Fellow who designed this project for the foundation did. After all, what potential profit is there in offering free legal resources to lawyers? However, once the resource was designed it became a rather large success with other states and sectors of pro bono law requesting it. There were even requests outside the United States for it. The “.com” legal sites came to call as well, as they saw it as a very useful add-on to their offerings. The resources on the site were, unique, accessible and had real commercial value – once they were designed and successfully meeting their constituent’s needs.
In another example, OSI created many ISP’s in Central and Eastern Europe in the mid-90’s when little infrastructure existed to connect civil society to the Internet. In many cases it was the first high speed connection the country. In other cases, it reduced exorbitant competitor pricing for the services thus spurring further development and creating competition. These ISP’s were created to serve a social need, and Internet was provided free. However, when competition was spurred and a market developed, users began to be charged to lower funding subsidies. The ISP’s became viable businesses in their own right, and are now being sold off to interested buyers. Some multi-lateral agencies doing development work use a similar model for sustainable development. They fund projects for the first three years as not-for-profits and assume they will become profitable after that period.
For those skill skeptical that a social and business venture can ever be combined, the Cambridge Incubator provided another model. The incubator was a for-profit venture that decided to run a socially responsible competition and provide incubator funding and resources to the “.org” winner that had the most innovative project. If every incubator had a similar competition for just one “.org” winner, it would do much to spur a vibrant social sector on the Internet. Foundations might take that stamp of approval as a sign the .org in question was a viable bet. The onus in this scenario would be on the “.org” to find sustainable revenue over the long term. However it would be more adequately funded at the outset and in a better position to do so.
Regarding pure corporate contributions to the digital divide; AOL was already mentioned as an example of a corporation lending resources to its foundation to meet a social good. A different example also mentioned above is the Cisco corporation which is successfully engaged in an initiative throughout the world to stem local “brain drain” by providing network expertise to young technical professionals in-country. It is working with local trusted institutions to develop partnerships. If a corporation is not ready to assist to this degree by creating its own programs or working in partnership, one very important thing that it can still do is provide regional discount arrangements to grantees of funding consortiums working together to bridge the digital divide. On the local or International front, companies or individuals willing to share their technical expertise with local NGO’s, foundations and multi-laterals, provide an exceptional benefit.
General Implementation Models and the Digital Divide
Having spent a significant portion of my career engaged in technical project management, there are a few lessons learned which are useful to apply to cross sector cooperation on issues surrounding the digital divide:
It is usually best to start with a pilot project, understand the difficulties in making it a success, and then growing it. Mega-projects are great when building bridges and dams or working on very simple development issues like placing hardware in institutions. However, most development projects are more sophisticated because they focus on changing people’s lives, and people are more complicated than objects. The more people in the more places a project affects, the more technically, politically, and economically complicated the project becomes. It is therefore always better to grow a project with a demonstrated successful pilot than to implement a project across a wide spectrum of constituencies and geographies without any history of success having been demonstrated. It is also easier to solicit funding partnerships for successful efforts. Once a successful pilot is developed, it is critically important to market it well. So many times the wheel is reinvented simply because people do not know what already exists.
When developing projects and partnerships, do not look to the institutions and people who are reticent to change as the first implementers of a new idea. Look to the early adopters who are excited about making the leap and work with them to support their efforts and forge partnerships. If an effort proves successful, market it, market and then market it some more. Inevitably, those who do not participate in the first round will in the second or third because they recognize the value of doing so. I have seen rather costly technology projects fail because an important entity dead set against change was forced to participate. This early adopter strategy may initially leave some important players out of the game, (and for this to work you must have at least a critical mass of the core players on board). However, it will also lead to less dissonance and result in a larger number of entities buying into the process because they want to be part of the success. The only downside to this strategy is that it takes a bit longer for everyone to buy in when change is not forced upon them. However, the major benefit is avoiding costly failures especially during the crucial pilot phase. It’s much tougher to shoot arrows at something that is demonstrated to work.
When evaluating projects, understand that there are professional proposal writers and judging projects purely on proposals is a poor way to assess project efficacy in the technology area. Projects should be evaluated by visiting with potential grantees, understanding their links to the local communities they serve, and asking who the implementers of the project are. There are many eloquent visionaries in the development field who do not have implementation experience or expertise. Assure the potential grantee that visits or follow-up evaluations of one sort of another will take place during the course of the project and/or after. Here foundations and multi-laterals can take a page from the VC handbook. Too many grants are provided and then not followed up on except for the legally required year-end report on project expenditures. Projects are implemented differently when funders are more involved in the process, questioning activities and providing value-added advice. The Internet itself is an indispensable tool in this process. If an organization is funding infrastructure or content grants, there are objective evaluation tools available on the Internet to help how much they are actually being used and how effectively. Similarly a grant to promote Internet presence can be analyzed by evaluating a grantee’s site right at your desk.
All sectors looking to bridge the digital divide must be creative in evaluating socially responsible projects. To my mind a socially responsible project first meets its development objectives by impacting the constituents it targets. Successful projects have a greater possibility of influencing further funding or subsidies, becoming self-sustaining or generating revenue precisely because they are successful and attract interest. Foundation funders should therefore not be averse to supporting projects that assist the constituencies they are trying to help, while also having a revenue generating component. The Internet will continue drawing disparate sectors together in collaboration, and funders must be willing to adopt to this funding reality if they wish to participate successfully in bridging the digital divide.
Finally, there is probably only a large roomful of people in the world today that have enough development, technology, business and political experience to articulate the issues, help facilitate partnerships between sectors and bridge the digital divide using Internet and related technologies. Of this roomful of people, few have all the talents described but enough possess four out of five to help facilitate real cross-sectoral collaboration and successful project outcomes. If an attempt is made to bring this roomful of people together to collaborate and help translate and facilitate between the various sectors, it will make the objective of bridging the digital divide that much more possible.
– Jonathan Peizer –