Want to close Canada’s digital divide? Grow the sector’s funding ecosystem

How the “digital philanthropy” landscape needs to grow and change, according to digital equity advocates

Why It Matters

COVID-19 has exposed just how important an internet connection is to people’s lives, but the funding ecosystem for digital access projects is in its infancy. The digital divide remains stubbornly wide: in rural communities, just four in 10 Canadians have access to high-speed internet. If philanthropists want to help close the gap, digital philanthropy will have to grow exponentially in Canada.

This story is in partnership with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). 

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a group of 13 local municipalities wanted to find a solution to the inequitable access to high-speed internet in their region. 

The mayors and reeves were consistently finding that telecoms businesses and the federal government were failing to serve more rural areas, where there was a smaller customer base.

In Canada, only four in 10 people in rural communities have access to what the federal telecommunications regulator considers “basic” internet speeds, and internet performance data from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) shows that rural speeds are roughly ten times slower than urban speeds on average. 

In 2018, the municipalities took things into their own hands. They created a community-benefit corporation called “John Q Public” — named after the slang phrase for members of the public, to emphasize that everyone will benefit from their work. 

With the municipalities as 50 percent shareholders, in partnership with a local private internet service provider, the governments will have greater control to influence the distribution of internet more affordably and equitably to communities under-served by the telecoms industry.

“We have areas that are totally lacking in service,” says Colleen Sklar, the executive director of the Winnipeg Metropolitan Region, who is spearheading the pilot project which is just getting underway. “Access to high-speed internet infrastructure is not just nice to have, it’s a prerequisite for pretty much anything you need to do nowadays,” she says, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

The corporation, which is still in its development phase, launched thanks to philanthropic support. But those working in “digital philanthropy” — which funds internet-related projects — say that the funding landscape in Canada for projects like John Q is extremely limited and difficult to access.

If foundations are to help close the divide, digital equity organizations and funders say the digital philanthropy ecosystem in Canada needs to grow.


The pot needs to be much bigger

For organizations working to close the digital divide, the biggest issue with digital philanthropy is simple: there isn’t enough of it.

“It’s really difficult, as a non-profit organization working in Canada, to find secure and stable funding mechanisms for work related to the internet,” says Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia.

Tribe explained that this is partly because the sector isn’t sufficiently developed to advocate for itself and fundraise, compared to organizations that have successfully organized around issues like health and education.

Outside of substantial federal government funding — which is difficult for small and community-level digital organizations to access in competition with major telecoms companies — very little cash is available for digital equity organizations. 

“Digital philanthropy is not a reflex in Canada. It’s not something that people have an instinct to give towards,” Tribe says, citing low awareness about the issue and a lack of high-profile organizations to donate to.

In the United States, for example, major philanthropic players like the Ford Foundation have made digital access a key priority. 

International funders, meanwhile, are more focused on internet projects in developing countries in the Global South, where there are millions more people to impact than in an advanced economy like Canada. 

Tribe added that more should be done to persuade businesses operating in Canada, such as technology companies, to recognize the need to give back and extend the internet ecosystem to those missing out. “We need to really convince people this is a sector that’s worth investing in from a philanthropic perspective,” Tribe says, which requires more organization and advocacy by those in the sector.

That means working to create a tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada. “If we think about what we could do with double the resources or triple the resources, the impact would be immense,” she says.


Funding needs to be longer-term and more flexible

Secondly, the small amount of funding available in the digital philanthropy ecosystem is often very limiting in terms of what organizations can do with it. In a report by Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) released last month, based on a phone and online survey of those in the sector, 71 percent of respondents said there is a lack of funding for long-term projects and initiatives.

“So much of the funding is limited to a really specific, narrow project,” Tribe says. Therefore, she says organizations often have to arbitrarily create new projects to justify getting a grant, instead of further developing their ongoing work.

Respondents to CIRA’s survey said that key areas like digital literacy and building infrastructure to reach remote communities — which require long-term sustained funding to be successful — are severely underfunded in Canada.

“The nature of project-based funding means it’s hard to develop longer term capacity, so everything feels like it’s a one-off,” says Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital Freenet in Ottawa. She says it would be very useful to be able to hire new full-time staff members to do work, but that is rarely possible with grants which are tied to specific projects instead of permanent capacity-building.

Robinson says foundations’ competitive granting applications and reporting processes can be onerous and overly structured. She says this can even cause organizations to “contort” their ideas to get funding, based on what a funder is looking for, instead of what might be best for their organization and the community they are serving.

On this issue, she thinks the non-profit and charitable sector could take a leaf from the private sector’s book. “In a business context, we really appreciate that things should change and iterate and have flexibility,” she explains. 

Private companies understand the value of trusting in long-term investments, Robinson says. “In the not-for-profit funding context, we implicitly want things to be static and rigid.”


Philanthropy can be the “great convenor”

But digital equity organizations point out that the potential role of philanthropy in closing the digital divide is far more than simply putting up cash. 

The gap in Canada’s digital philanthropy ecosystem, therefore, is also a gap in what foundations and other funders can bring to the table — such as expertise, guidance and connections.

“I’m a big proponent of partnerships,” says Mark Buell, regional vice president for North America at the Internet Society. “A community can’t do this on their own, a philanthropic organization can’t do this on their own.” 

Buell believes community-level collaboration including philanthropists, government and other organizations like businesses and non-profits can be an effective way of building sustainable internet access.

He says it’s vital that foundations and their partners help find ways of embedding technical knowledge at the local level, empowering locals to run their own internet systems. “Without the expertise on the ground in the community, a network’s not going to get built in times of a crisis,” Buell says, such as COVID-19.

In Winnipeg, Colleen Sklar says that efforts to provide internet access have been supplied by a “mosaic of small networks.” In this kind of situation, she says philanthropy can play the most important role as “the great convenor” to make sure efforts complement each other.

Sklar asks: “Can philanthropy come in and actually compel us to coordinate our efforts and maybe stitch together these networks?”