The list goes on and on. When left unchecked, digital inequity is a huge enabler of disadvantage and systemic discrimination for marginalized communities across the country.
On a broader level, there’s also a policy and advocacy imbalance that favours the perspectives of industry over communities and not-for-profits when it comes to designing public policy for the internet.
To help correct this imbalance and increase local control over how users access the internet, community groups and not-for-profits across the country are taking the lead on digital-development projects to help achieve digital equity. While the potential for meaningful community-level impact is high, the demand for funding is even higher – and growing.
At CIRA, our success running Canada’s top-level domain registry—.CA—and providing leading cybersecurity, DNS and registry services has made it possible to generate revenue that we invest in community-led internet initiatives in Canada. Since 2014, CIRA has funded 185 projects with $9.2 million through our Community Investment Program grants.
A few years ago, while refreshing our strategy, we were curious about the digital funding landscape in Canada. Many people we had spoken with believed there was more than enough funding for digital initiatives in Canada. They thought that various levels of government were taking care of Canadians’ basic connectivity and skills needs.
That prompted us to undertake in-depth research in 2020. By surveying the landscape, we found that the reality of the situation was quite different than perceived.
Through interviews with more than 100 not-for-profits, Indigenous communities, academics and others, we unearthed serious systemic policy and funding issues that result in a digital gap in Canada. We published those results in Unconnected: Funding Shortfalls, Policy Imbalances and How They Are Contributing to Canada’s Digital Underdevelopment.
CIRA’s grants program emerged as one of the few digitally focused funding programs accessible to non-profits in the country.
Since then, some progress in awareness around digital development needs has been made. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed every facet of life online, and funders have found themselves staring at unacceptable levels of digital inequity among grant recipients and communities across the country, especially among those who have poor or no connectivity and have limited capacity and limited opportunity to get their voices heard on the larger issues.
It seems clearer to many people now, after two years of restrictions and a spike in online activity, that there’s a direct link between funding digital development and solving digital inequity and the social injustices it exacerbates.
Momentum among funders to address these gaps has slowly begun to build. Community Foundations of Canada, for example, included a specific focus on digital solutions in their Healthy Communities Initiative, a program funded by the Government of Canada. And Technovate is a consortium of donors actively working to mobilize a funding response to the digital divide in the not-for-profit sector.
Apart from these nascent efforts, funding for community groups leading digital development projects still remains largely ad hoc and inaccessible. We were keen to find out why.
This year, we conducted more research to learn directly from a variety of Canadian funders about their perceptions on digital development funding initiatives, including what they see as opportunities and barriers along with their ideas about how best to build funding capacity for initiatives.
This report presents findings from 20 in-depth interviews with a variety of different funders—some of whom are pioneers in the digital funding space and some of whom are new to it. While the funders overwhelmingly agree that digital equity is a priority, their level of commitment to it varies. Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem, or unsure where or how to start, many seek education and leadership to inform their approach.
The research is clear on one point: the funding demand for digital initiatives is huge, and the apparent supply is small.
Many more players need to join Canada’s digital funding effort: community and private foundations, corporate giving programs, and tech philanthropies, to name a few. Our humble goal for this report is to plant a flag for digital equity in this country and encourage Canada’s philanthropic community to make digital equity a strategic priority in everything they do.