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This piece originally appeared in The Philanthropist Journal on November 28, 2022.


What if I told you that millions of people in this country – 5% of all Canadian households – do not have a residential internet connection? And that only half of rural households and just a third of First Nation households have access to the “basic” speed target of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload set by Canada’s communications regulator in 2016?

What if I also told you that we have the know-how and resources to close this digital equity gap, but so far the private sector and governments alone have been unable to make the investments in information technology infrastructure required to do so?

This must sound daunting, but I have good news: there is a clear role for philanthropy in addressing some of these challenges and improving access to critical internet resources in underserved communities across the country. And to get you started, we’ve put together an easy-to-use guide.

The need for digital equity funding outstrips the supply

For the last 10 years, CIRA’s granting program has helped communities get the funds they need to make meaningful change. But despite its successes, there is a limit to what the program can accomplish on its own. Canada has a vibrant ecosystem of non-profits and community groups that are working hard to achieve digital equity for Canadians, yet the need for funding greatly outstrips the supply.

CIRA’s is one of the few non-government digitally focused funding programs in the country. Every year it receives more applications from communities than it can possibly fund; on average, CIRA funds approximately 15% of submitted projects – a scratch on the surface. There are dozens of underserved Northern, rural, Indigenous, and other communities that are not getting the funding they need to achieve digital equity.

What exactly does “digital equity” mean? It’s the condition where everyone has enough information technology capacity – connectivity, skills, and policy influence – for full, meaningful participation in our society, economy, and democracy, including access to affordable, high-quality internet wherever they are. In the post-pandemic world, following the wholesale shift in nearly all areas of society to an online model, solving the digital inequity challenge is more important than ever.

Achieving digital equity is vitally important. The benefits are broad and deep and can be transformative on many levels, not just for the communities involved but for any organization looking to improve the lives of Canadians, whatever their specific social impact focus might be.

By making the decision to fund digital equity, funders can achieve important social outcomes that are aligned with their mission. For example, providing funding to improve access to online health services can lead to improved physical and mental health. Better online access can raise standards of living and alleviate poverty by enabling greater access to education, employment, and other opportunities.

A new guide for funding digital equity

CIRA’s How to Fund Digital Equity in Canada: A Guide for Funders was developed based on knowledge gained from funding digital initiatives over the last 10 years; from funders, both formally and informally; and from two recent research studies.

The first of these studies – published in 2020 and based on interviews with more than 100 not-for-profits, Indigenous communities, academics, and others – unearthed serious systemic policy and funding issues that are contributing to the digital equity gap in Canada. The second study was published in March of this year. It replayed the results from the first study to learn directly from a variety of Canadian funders about their perceptions on digital equity funding initiatives, what they see as opportunities and barriers, and their ideas about how best to build funding capacity. It found that although Canada’s philanthropic community had not historically prioritized bridging Canada’s digital divide, they see the importance and urgency of tackling the issue.

The top three barriers Canadian funders face

How to Fund Digital Equity shines a spotlight on three key barriers that prevent Canadian funders from maximizing their impact in this area.

The first involves outdated mindsets and processes among the funder community. Too often, funders see information technology as an operations issue or even an administrative expense, rather than an enabler of goals and objectives within the various social impact sectors.

The second barrier identified by researchers is a perception among funders that digital infrastructure needs, such as satellites and the costly hardware needed to support broadband services, are simply too large and too expensive for philanthropy to tackle and are best left to government and industry players.

The third barrier involves limited familiarity among funders about “where to show up” in the digital equity funding space. Researchers found that to break through and achieve success, funders need guidance and new perspectives from digital-equity funding champions and practitioners – and need to hear success stories from funders who have supported projects with a digital focus.

How to Fund Digital Equity offers a blueprint for funders looking to break through these barriers. It highlights the areas that have emerged as priorities in recent CIRA research with communities and funders, including funding community connectivity, community capacity, and community policy advocacy, and outlines practical steps funders can take to begin making an impact in this emerging area of Canadian philanthropy.

Underserved Canadian communities need your help

So what do these barriers look like in real life? And what can funders do to help? One example that stands out is a CIRA-funded project called Connected Coastal Nations: Leveraging our Collective Impact for Indigenous Economies & Community Wellbeing. The project combines federal and provincial funding to support community-owned internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver high-speed internet and increase network performance among Coastal Nations to reach a basic, universal standard of 50/10 Mbps. Funding is being used for community network sustainability planning and to “match-fund” provincial contributions for technical upgrades. This project is a prime example of where philanthropy can plug in, either through matching funds for larger infrastructure projects or by supporting activities that might not be covered under federal or provincial connectivity programs, such as community engagement.

Other recent CIRA-funded projects include supporting high-speed-internet upgrades in First Nations such as Malahat Nation and Takla Landing in British Columbia, where less than $100,000 can bolster a small community network and put that community on the digital map.

“We almost fell down when we got the news CIRA was funding us,” says Scott Hickling, Takla’s general manager. “It means people finally recognized that we really are here at the end of the road and we’re of value. This grant is going to give us that last bit of connectivity we haven’t had. And with improved connectivity comes greater economic opportunity. Takla territory is a rich ecosystem ripe for tourism. Better internet means Takla can become that landing spot for entering the territory and the Narrows down the lake.”

The successful completion of these kinds of projects can make an enormous difference in the lives of Canadians. Access to reliable high-speed internet helps people find new jobs, access online health services, and stay in touch with friends and family – among many other benefits.

Here’s where you come in

Equipped with this knowledge, your organization can begin to develop its own digital equity funding programs. Or you can take a first step into this space by channelling some of your resources into CIRA’s Community Investment Program Grants initiative. You can also explore partnering with organizations – such as Technovate or Connect Humanity – that are committed to addressing the needs of communities lagging behind when it comes to quality internet access.

Whether you’re a funder or a leader looking to improve digital equity in your community, we encourage you to read How to Fund Digital Equity in Canada and get in touch at maureen.james@cira.ca to find out how CIRA can help move your digital equity efforts forward.