Skip to main content
  • Net Good

Key takeaways from the Dismantling Digital Barriers summit

By Maureen James
Manager, Community Investment Program

Earlier this month, CIRA and the Future of Good presented a two-day, virtual Dismantling Digital Barriers summit that attracted hundreds of changemakers from across the social impact sector to discuss the critical role that digital skills and connectivity play in bridging Canada’s digital divide.

The summit shone a light on the digital disparities affecting communities across the country. Sessions covered a wide range of topics, including digital delivery of not-for-profit services, funding for digital development initiatives, and what exactly we mean when we talk about digital equity.

I was pleased to represent CIRA and our Community Investment Program on the ‘Funding Digital Connectivity and Capacity’ panel, where I shared a bit about our CIRA Grants program, as well as our views on how the philanthropic sector can better support digital development work in Canada.

I was struck by the passion everyone brought to our panel discussions and Braindates. The conversations were thought-provoking and rich, surfacing a lot of unique and compelling perspectives on digital equity.

Over the past year, I’ve been obsessed with one question: how can we create a new tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada? The summit gave me a lot of new ideas, so I wanted to take a few minutes to jot down what I learned and share some of the key takeaways from CIRA’s perspective.

Key Takeaways

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. To resolve the digital inequities that hold back Canada’s Indigenous, low-income and rural communities, funders need to support the work of the broader advocacy ecosystem. We know from previous research that funding for groups tackling problems like internet access and affordability is scarce. Changes to the policies, programs and legislation meant to achieve digital equity for all Canadians will need to come from the grassroots—and the grassroots needs financial support right now.

Funders need to match the fearlessness of the social impact sector. Scores of not-for-profit organizations have taken up projects, and bold new ways of delivering services, to respond to digital demand in their communities. Unfortunately, they have found that many funders are reluctant to fund emergent digital projects, in part because technology is constantly evolving, and also because funders are unfamiliar with the technology choices groups are making. We can’t afford fear right now. It’s 2021 and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic forced everything online, leaving many Canadians behind. It’s time for funders to jump in and support this urgent work, with a willingness to learn as they go.

Many tech companies aren’t yet supporting digital development. This one surprises me. An obvious approach would be to align your company’s corporate social responsibility program with initiatives that relate not only to your corporate values, but also your business interests. Many tech companies focus their efforts on environmental initiatives or other causes, which are absolutely important. At the same time, there is also a tremendous opportunity for tech companies to open their pocketbooks to digital development. Why not do good and maybe even create some new customers in the process?

Finally, the social impact sector is excited about our upcoming research. In October of 2020, CIRA released a landmark research report that identified the funding problems afflicting not-for-profits working on digital development projects. This fall, we’re following up with research into funding for digital equity and why funders do or don’t support digital development initiatives. If you’re a funder or philanthropist who already supports digital equity projects, or is considering it, please reach out to me over email so we can get you involved.

Were you able to attend the Dismantling Digital Barriers summit? We’d like to hear your key takeaways! Be sure to share them with us on social media. Follow and tag me on Twitter @maureen_jamesss as well as @ciranews so we can keep the conversation going.

About the author
Maureen James

Maureen James manages CIRA’s Community Investment Program. Her background is in fundraising, grantmaking and strategy development with non-profits internationally and here in Canada.