CIRA’s mission is to build a trusted internet for Canadians. It’s a mission chock-full of pride and hard work. But have you ever wondered how we do this? Enter CIRA’s grants program. CIRA Grants is just one way we build a trusted internet for Canadians as part of our Community Investment Program—and it has an important origin story.
The year is 2006—CIRA is thriving as Canada’s top-level domain manager. Domain registrants are multiplying and membership is growing. Brimming with expertise and resources, and given our non-profit status, CIRA was uniquely positioned to give back to Canadians in a meaningful way. In the years that followed, we began investing assets in a variety of digital projects in Canada’s internet ecosystem. This work was important and enabled CIRA to become a leader in the digital philanthropic space. CIRA’s board and membership were keen to see how other organizations might approach the betterment of Canada’s internet ecosystem and chose to initiate a unique change-making opportunity. In 2014, the Community Investment Program Grants were launched.
There was a gap in the tech space when it came to funding community-led internet projects, so CIRA took the leap and began its journey as a digital grant maker. As Byron Holland, CIRA president and CEO, states, “The granting program was a logical outgrowth of our desire to help better the internet in Canada. As a non-profit ourselves, we wanted to share our resources at the disposal of communities and issues that are often overlooked.”
And that’s what CIRA has been doing now for the last eight years. Grants address the building blocks of a trusted internet: infrastructure and access, digital literacy, cybersecurity and internet policy and governance issues in Canada. To date, CIRA has funded 185 projects across the country with $9.2 million.
The pandemic caused a massive shift to living life online, putting a large emphasis on Canada’s digital divide. Holland notes, “The digital divide is a challenge in Canada, and it is important to note that that divide manifests itself in different ways for different folks.”
“It’s really about underserved communities and first and foremost we need to understand who they are and where they are, and when we say underserved, what do we mean?”, Byron Holland explains. “Obviously in Canada we face the challenge of achieving high-quality affordable internet access in remote, low-density, low-population areas. But this is also an inner-city problem.” While CIRA’s focus and target communities for grants change periodically, our current emphasis on providing grants to rural, Northern, and Indigenous communities, and students, is designed to play a role in addressing that divide.
Communities have the opportunity to tell us exactly what they need, in relation to our four funding areas:
For infrastructure, perhaps the idea is a community-owned and operated ISP in a remote Indigenous community.
A digital literacy project might entail after-school or summer skills building programs for underserved inner-city youth.
A cybersecurity project could involve research creating simulations and tests to understand the risk profiles and mitigate threats for a particular population.
A community leadership project might consist of developing a digital equity strategy or plan to strengthen the ecosystem of organizations advocating for an affordable national broadband strategy.
CIRA is proud to be a leader in contributing towards addressing Canada’s digital divide through our grants program—and making a real difference doing it. And yet, there is so much more demand than we can fulfill. Each year CIRA’s Community Investment Evaluation Panel faces the challenge of choosing among dozens of eligible projects—knowing that most of those worthy initiatives will go unfunded, because funding for community-level digital projects is so limited.
As one of the few actors supporting the ever-growing need for funding, CIRA is concerned that in a time where digital access and skills are crucial to people’s livelihood, Canada lacks digital funders. Apart from federal and provincial funding, there are few funders that channel their resources to support digital equity projects.
Looking back to 2006, CIRA could not have imagined such a need for a digital funding program, but now, it’s almost impossible to envision CIRA—and even Canada—without this type of support. As Byron Holland explains, “We fund projects that don’t create trust in and of itself but are a building block to creating a trusted internet in Canada.” CIRA is working to build awareness of this need for funding and to encourage more of a tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada. As an organization consider how you can take a similar path to CIRA’s, contributing to a better, more trusted internet for Canadians.