In an effort to understand the challenges and opportunities facing civil society and community organizations working to improve the quality of Canada’s internet, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) commissioned research firm The Strategic Counsel to conduct a qualitative and quantitative assessment of stakeholder perceptions of the nation’s digital philanthropy landscape.
Researchers started by identifying not-for-profits, charities, academics, funders and government program officials that work on initiatives promoting access to safe, reliable, high-quality internet services – or “internet-related projects” – across the country. The researchers then asked what these groups thought about the priorities and availability of digital funding in Canada. In doing so, they unearthed key funding gaps and issues with fundraising, but also serious systemic issues and blockages that are keeping those problems from being addressed both in policy and in funding. Without long-term funding for these gaps, needed systemic changes are not likely to happen.
The research results show that digital development in Canada is underfunded, piecemeal, ad hoc and unorganized despite stakeholders sharing many of the same goals.
The research results show that digital development in Canada is underfunded, piecemeal, ad hoc and unorganized despite stakeholders sharing many of the same goals – the connecting of Canadians to the internet in an affordable and reliable manner so that they can comfortably and knowledgeably participate in an increasingly digital economy and society.
The research also found that these goals and the challenges surrounding them have only become more pressing with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis that has pushed nearly every aspect of our daily lives online.
The Strategic Counsel’s research was undertaken between April and June of this year and was supplemented with further interviews conducted by CIRA in August. The result is a landmark study on the gaps in Canadian digital funding and underlying systemic issues. This report presents those findings and suggests potential actions that can be taken by different stakeholders to address and correct Canada’s digital underdevelopment.
Canada lacks funding for internet-related projects.
Resources are scarce both in terms of absolute dollars available for non-profits, charities and researchers, and in the breadth and depth of granting sources.
Most funding that does exist comes from government.
The larger philanthropic community that provides grants in other sectors such as health and education does not prioritize digital development work. Digital philanthropy is ill-defined in Canada and needs are therefore less understandable. This contrasts with other jurisdictions including the United States and Europe, where digital philanthropy is more prevalent because the problems are prioritized.
Funding is complicated and difficult to access.
This is especially true for not-for-profits and charities without the resources to hire specialists to assist in the application process.
Funding is most needed for digital literacy, infrastructure and community leadership.
Resources are needed to support work that increases equity and skills, builds network infrastructure, and enables policy advocacy.
These obstacles contribute to a sector that is ad hoc, piecemeal and unorganized.
They also contribute to a policy advocacy stakeholder imbalance that favours industry participation over communities, civil society groups and non-profits.
COVID-19 is expected to make the situation worse.
The pandemic is expected to place new financial pressures on the small number of existing funders in this area, stretching already thin funding across other needs and priorities.
CIRA is being called on to help mobilize awareness, co-ordination and more funding.
CIRA is seen as well-suited for this role due to its unique position as an independent and neutral entity with a fundamental interest in Canada’s digital development. While CIRA certainly can help, the needs of groups working in this sector are simply too great for the organization to address them alone.
- Digital philanthropy: Grants, funding, or other resources made available by government, foundations, businesses, individuals – anyone with resources to dedicate to it – for a broad range of internet-related projects such as internet infrastructure, digital literacy programs, cybersecurity projects, or public engagement in how digital technologies are deployed and governed in Canada.
- Internet-related projects: Community-led projects that have as a common focus the connecting of Canadians to the internet in an affordable, secure, reliable and informed manner.
- Digital development: The process as well as the initiatives through which digital equity is achieved for all Canadians with respect to internet access and capacity to participate in an increasingly digital economy and society.
Problems with digital development in Canada can be summarized through the experience of Bruce Buffalo and the Samson Cree Nation at Maskwacis, a hamlet of about 7,600 south of Edmonton in Alberta.
Like many residents of the reserve, Buffalo was frustrated with the high price and low quality of internet service available to his community. So, three years ago, he decided to do something about it.
Originally training to be a carpenter, Buffalo began by teaching himself basic networking. He decided to run an online campaign through GoFundMe to raise $1,500, or enough to pay for a year of residential internet access through his local satellite provider, plus some networking gear. After verifying with the provider that he was allowed to give away Wi-Fi access for free after he had paid for it, he did just that, effectively connecting about 30 residences to his own home service. He then ran another campaign, this time raising $7,000, to significantly expand this do-it-yourself network.
Buffalo then learned that Maskwacis had access to a fibre broadband network, but it was reserved for schools, government operations and correctional facilities. He set up a not-for-profit entity and soon after, Cybera, Alberta’s not-for-profit business incubator, chipped in with some bandwidth. The Maskwacis Cultural College and nearby Wolfpaw Data Centres also helped by providing some necessary services.
The effort has continued to grow. Now, up to 500 people can connect via 21 access points each day. Around 120 people are online at any given time, using download and upload speeds of up to 80 megabits per second, which is comparable to what many residential users in big cities have access to. A grant from CIRA’s Community Investment Program to Buffalo’s Mamawapowin Technology Society, meanwhile, keeps the service free for users. He says it’s the fastest and most reliable internet access available to his community. Buffalo believes he has built a model that can be exported to other First Nations reserves.
The Samson Cree Nation is better off now in terms of internet access than it was in 2017, but he warns that the improvement is precarious. He had to teach himself how to use the network’s hardware and software and he works long hours to maintain it. Given those factors, he doesn’t believe the network is sustainable in the long term, at least not yet.
“Right now it’s just me running it. I need higher-level training to bring this network up to almost enterprise quality level. We do a good job currently, but we need to worry about expansion and growth and we need skills to do that,” he says. “We also haven’t found anybody who’s willing to put in the work 24-seven, 365 days a year, because that’s what I do. I don’t know what will happen if anything happens to me.”
Buffalo's story exemplifies the most pressing internet issues in Canada. His do-it-yourself broadband network is a project borne of necessity – an increasingly vital piece of infrastructure built in a community that gets low priority from telecommunications companies, funded almost entirely by the goodwill of individuals and organizations.
Bruce Buffalo’s do-it-yourself broadband network on the Samson Cree Nation is a microcosm of the most pressing internet issues in Canada – a project borne of necessity built in a community that gets low priority from telecommunications companies, funded almost entirely by the goodwill of individuals and organizations, without a pipeline of committed skills to guarantee its continuity into the future.
The effort exists in a leadership and education void, without a pipeline of committed skills to guarantee its continuity into the future. It is ad hoc, unconnected to other, similar efforts elsewhere in the country and without an overseeing hand to guide it as part of a counterpoint to commercial interests. In a nutshell, it is a microcosm of digital development in Canada as a whole.
Much of the reason for this underdevelopment is a wide-scale lack of funding that leads to systemic problems, which are compounded by a general lack of awareness of the issues in the funding community. With little money available to support and grow projects outside of industry or to foster creative collaboration and community problem-solving, coupled with little attention paid to the issue as a whole, the sector languishes in a piecemeal, ad hoc manner and will continue to do so unless this serious lack of resources can be better understood and communicated to the philanthropic community at large.
Such are the findings of a new, landmark study carried out by The Strategic Counsel on behalf of CIRA.
50 in-depth interviews
65 online survey responses
Based on 50 in-depth telephone interviews conducted in April and May with not-for-profit and civil society organizations, Indigenous communities, academics and researchers, government, social innovation entities and philanthropic foundations, and an online survey completed by 65 respondents in June, a lack of funding sources was identified as contributing to low activity and growth momentum in key areas such as infrastructure development, digital literacy education and community leadership.
Some government grants and programs do exist, but they are largely inaccessible to most non-profit organizations and charities, respondents to the survey said. The broader philanthropic community in Canada is largely unaware of this digital funding gap, because it is not well defined in comparison to other issues that are traditionally well-funded, such as health, environment, poverty and others.
The broader philanthropic community in Canada is largely unaware of this digital funding gap, because it is not well defined in comparison to other issues that are traditionally well-funded, such as health, environment, poverty and others.
This stands in stark contrast to other countries, particularly the United States, where numerous foundations, think-tanks and other philanthropic organizations provide significant funding for internet-related issues.
The funding that is available in Canada is also almost always on an ad-hoc, per-project basis. Core funding to establish and maintain organizations with long-term vision and goals around systemic change is nearly non-existent, the survey found.
These issues show up in a number of ways, from outright lack of internet access in many regions of the country – particularly rural, remote and Indigenous communities – to services that are unaffordable for many people in even the most urbanized parts. Large portions of the population continue to be unsure of how to use online resources, while civil society groups find themselves unable to push for necessary policy changes.
The result is a gap where many Canadians remain actually or effectively unconnected and therefore increasingly left behind by the digital economy. An imbalance in which government and regulators make policy decisions based largely, or even solely, on input from industry also exists. In the COVID-19 era, these problems stand to worsen.
Respondents to The Strategic Counsel survey detailed a comprehensive list of problems related to digital development and provided some suggestions on solutions. Their feedback is presented here, supplemented with on-the-record anecdotes and opinions gathered from further interviews in an effort to determine the scope of the issue. Suggested actions that CIRA and other stakeholders can take to move Canada forward follow.
Funding: Too little to make a difference, too complex to acquire
Digital development problems in Canada begin with funding. Funds for internet-related projects and initiatives, from the deployment of infrastructure such as broadband networks to the development of skills efforts such as privacy rights education, are scarce.
Almost all interviewees in The Strategic Counsel report described funding for internet-related projects as limited, with some describing it as a “constant struggle.” Nearly half of respondents, or 45 per cent, said it is difficult to access funds, compared to only 13 per cent who said it was easy.
45% say funding is difficult to access
While the majority of funding for internet-related projects comes from government sources, Canada has a paucity of other institutional grant givers that are common elsewhere, such as think-tanks and foundations. Compounding this problem is the fact that Canadian organizations are also often not eligible for funding from global foundations because Canada does not fall into a regional funding envelope.
As one fund provider told researchers, U.S. granting organizations tend to ignore Canada because it isn’t foreign enough: “Europe has more [funding] than Canada, but U.S. foundations will play in Europe because they see it as ‘somewhere else,’ whereas they will not typically invest in Canada.”
Survey respondents identified several key areas for funding – digital literacy and infrastructure were found to be highest priority – but in conversations with stakeholders it became clear that multiple needs overlap. Community leadership in particular, identified as third highest priority, can spur policy advocacy and is essential to making change in both areas that ranked higher, for example. The needs therefore aren’t either/or, but rather holistic and mutually inclusive. As a result, the relative ranking of priorities should be approached with that in mind.
43% digital literacy
12% community leadership
Forty-three per cent said digital literacy was the most important area. Examples given for digital literacy funding priorities included:
- Increasing equity, skills development and empowerment of Indigenous people, youth, racialized Canadians, older adults and low-income people.
- Combating misinformation.
- Public education on privacy, digital policy, data governance and understanding algorithms in regards to how they shape access to information, rights and equality.
- Developing digital skills curriculum in schools.
- Creating a national association devoted to media and digital literacy.
Thirty-two per cent of respondents ranked infrastructure funding as the most important area. Funding needs here included:
- Connecting rural and remote areas with fibre.
- A framework for connecting Indigenous communities with high-quality and affordable infrastructure that is led or co-led by Indigenous leaders.
- Research and pilot projects to help define infrastructure business models that are sustainable in low density and dispersed population areas.
- Funding for pilot programs to test proof of concepts, including mesh networks and other technology solutions.
- More projects to provide affordable internet access, including in urban areas.
Twelve per cent of respondents rated funding for community leadership as the most important need. However, as noted, the in-depth interviews with respondents indicate that this area was arguably the most important in terms of unlocking progress and change across all other issue areas. Funding issues here included:
- Developing of a coalition or ecosystem of groups working on similar issues.
- Policy advocacy and development, including research and evidence to support it.
- Lobbying for proactive legislative reform.
- Taking existing research and packaging it in ways that are easily understood by decision makers.
- Countering concentration of power, monopoly issues and data trusts.
Lack of funding isn’t the only problem for groups and organizations. In cases where funding is actually available, grant seekers also face a host of obstacles in accessing it. Chief among them are application processes that are often complicated and require special skills or qualified consultants.
Franca Palazzo, executive director of the Internet Society Canada chapter, said she spent weeks working on a grant application for a project last fall because she couldn’t afford a specialist to help. She declined to name the grant, for fear that doing so publicly will affect her future application chances, but said the process was complicated and required much guesswork on her part.
Palazzo managed to submit the application, but it was ultimately rejected. She was frustrated by the fact that there was no explanation given as to why the application was unsuccessful. The response said no further feedback could be provided because of the high number of applicants. Hardly an isolated incident, such rejections are the norm.
"You put in all this time and you don’t get the grant and there’s rarely an explanation as to why." she said. "At least if there was a learning process it wouldn’t be as frustrating."
You put in all this time and you don’t get the grant and there’s rarely an explanation as to why. At least if there was a learning process it wouldn’t be as frustrating.
The Strategic Counsel survey highlights this expertise issue as one of the disadvantages non-profits and charities face when applying for grants, especially in cases where they are competing against academics for the same funds.
Academics already have a relative advantage in the form of more funding sources available – 30 per cent of respondents associated with a postsecondary institution indicated that the level of funding for internet-related projects was good, compared to just 10 per cent of charities and not-for-profits – and their access to specialized knowledge gives them another leg up.
“[Universities] have so much expertise – research people, proposal writers, all this expertise… whereas small rural communities don’t have this expertise [to leverage to win a grant],” said one social enterprise respondent.
Other groups and individuals associated with digital development highlight additional problems, such as the pitting of organizations with similar goals against each other when it comes to applying for grants.
Denise Williams, chief executive officer of the First Nations Technology Council, said the competitive nature of the awards encourages a survival-of-the-fittest result, but the fittest aren’t necessarily those who need funds the most, but rather again, those who are the most knowledgeable with the application process.
"The granting process is incredibly difficult because it forces communities to compete with each other in a very westernized proposal writing or expression-of-interest process," she said. "For access to a basic utility … I have questions for why we have to compete with each other."
The granting process is incredibly difficult because it forces communities to compete with each other in a very westernized proposal writing or expression-of-interest process. For access to a basic utility … I have questions for why we have to compete with each other.
Rob McMahon, associate professor at University of Alberta and a co-ordinator with the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, agreed that the competitive approach is problematic, often unfair and possibly outdated. Small non-profits sometimes find themselves bidding against large companies for infrastructure grants. Their chances of succeeding are often minimal in these situations.
“Rather than thinking of ways to collaborate, both of these parties are going after the same funds,” he said.
To make matters worse, many respondents – nearly two-thirds – believed these funding issues will be further exacerbated in the COVID-19 era as resources at various levels of government are stretched.
“I fear that we will see something similar to 2008 where there’s a significant economic contraction and as a result of the recession, people cut their granting… with a lot of programs getting cut and dropped,” said one not-for-profit respondent. “If there is that contraction, a lot of the programs that would be cut would be around work in the digital space because that’s already tough to get money for.”
Another said, “It is reasonable to assume that there will be a level of desperation in terms of level of need on the backside of this. No one is going to be left untouched. That might speak to the deep desire for operational funding.”
Agenda setting: The cards are stacked in favour of industry
The lack of funding also plays a role when it comes to policy setting, with civil society groups facing disadvantages when making their cases to regulators and government. Such groups spoke well of how the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has become more inclusive in recent years by holding public hearings and discussions on a host of issues and pending rulings, but they also warned that this openness has caused several problems, especially as it pertains to funding.
As with needing specialized skills and therefore sometimes the hiring of expensive consultants to complete grant applications, the same is often true with taking part in CRTC proceedings. The regulator, which frequently makes important decisions that determine the rules under which all stakeholders in digital development must play, operates much like a court, which can be confusing and discouraging for those who try to participate.
“You kind of have to be a lawyer to know what’s going on,” said John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
If an individual or group does indeed figure out how to navigate and participate in CRTC hearings, they inevitably incur costs by doing so. Participants can apply to have those costs reimbursed, but the process is long – wait times of a year to 18 months are common, Lawford said. That is often far too long for regularly cash-strapped organizations.
Another issue with the CRTC’s openness is that it results in a large volume of proceedings. Civil society groups say they can’t afford to participate in all of them so they have to pick and choose, which can send the wrong message to the regulator. Large companies that the civil society groups often oppose at these hearings don’t have the same problem – they take part in every proceeding.
“If you don’t participate, that suggests to the CRTC that it doesn’t matter. It puts so much pressure on public interest groups to ensure that if there is a consultation that you participate in every single aspect. Otherwise, that was your only shot to have your voice heard,” said Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia. "There is an incredible amount of pressure to participate [in CRTC consultations] or to accept the consequences of your lack of participation. There’s no understanding of the resources it takes. They very much cater to the already well-resourced stakeholder."
There is an incredible amount of pressure to participate [in CRTC consultations] or to accept the consequences of your lack of participation. There’s no understanding of the resources it takes. They very much cater to the already well-resourced stakeholder.
Lawford agreed. He said he wanted to intervene more in the wholesale internet price dispute between incumbent network owners and independent service providers that has been unfolding at the CRTC since the summer of 2019, but it was one of those battles that PIAC was largely forced to sit out – just one of many the organization doesn’t have time to take part in. “I have a number of [intervention files] sitting on my desk, but I just can’t get them done,” Lawford said.
Consumer advocate groups face an even bigger imbalance politically. None can afford to hire full-time lobbyists to meet with government officials and bureaucrats on a regular basis, and certainly not with the frequency of large telecom companies.
For example, during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, between mid-March and the end of July, Canada’s three largest wireless companies – Bell, Rogers and Telus – met with government or CRTC officials 128 times according to Canada’s lobbyist registry, or nearly once a day. PIAC and OpenMedia had no such meetings registered over the same time frame.
The problem here is fundamental, the groups said. “[With] the current framework in how it’s designed and how regulation is designed, I don’t see a way for us to work through that without some sort of major innovation,” said Williams of the First Nations Technology Council.
The need for core funding and systemic change
All of the issues mentioned so far speak to a need for more core funding – the resources that allow organizations to pay for basic needs on an ongoing basis. Whether it’s rent and utilities for offices or staff and training, without core funding, individuals and organizations are often left scrambling to keep the figurative lights on.
According to The Strategic Counsel report, a lack of core funding makes it difficult for organizations to:
- Plan longer-term projects.
- Continue successful projects that have already been started with grant support.
- Take advantage of unexpected opportunities that arise.
- Address issues and emergencies as they come up, including government hearings, but also crises such as COVID-19.
- Manage staff levels.
72% say core funding is an excellent or good idea
About 41 per cent of respondents said additional funding is needed for both core and emergent or special projects, but more prioritized core funding over the latter, at 29 per cent versus 20 per cent, respectively. Seventy-one per cent said there is a lack of funding for long-term projects and initiatives, while 72 per cent said core funding is “an excellent or good idea.”
Survey respondents were vocal about the need for such funding, with many putting forward strong opinions:
- “There’s very few [funders] out there who are really interested in supporting core [activities],” said one not-for-profit. “No one feels it is their responsibility… No one is interested in making any kind of a long-term commitment… It seems like funders like something that’s concrete, short-term, that doesn’t involve service.”
- “Sometimes funders do not want the same projects coming through and so you don’t get to water a project and let it grow,” said another social enterprise. “What happens is [you hear], ‘That was a good project this year, but we’re not going to fund that several times.’ So you’re finding that you are moving those needles just a tiny bit instead of doing extensive work in that area so that we can get measurable data that says this is the impact you had… When it’s been done I guess it’s our responsibility as a charity to continue doing it without having access to core funding?”
- “Going year-to-year with small projects will most likely not result in real change,” said another non-profit. “If your goal is to see an impact… it’s hard to reconcile small project, annual investment with real outcomes. Think about all of the time and energy that goes into managing the funding. I often wonder why they don’t want to do it multi-year.”
Going year-to-year with small projects will most likely not result in real change. If your goal is to see an impact… it’s hard to reconcile small project, annual investment with real outcomes.
- Think about all of the time and energy that goes into managing the funding. I often wonder why they don’t want to do it multi-year.”
- “What we really need is stability. We have the subject matter expertise, we have strong leadership in our organization,” said another. “All of us have been around this conversation for 10 to 20 years. We need the resources to properly serve our constituents… it can’t be a call for proposals here and there. That will never work.”
Without core funding to help organizations establish themselves, the problems with Canada’s digital development will continue, according to Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. The lack of this particular funding explains why a counter balance to industry has not emerged and why it likely won’t happen without major change – a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
“You don’t really have anyone invested in the long term in driving broadband or privacy as a public advocate. No one has really been able to stand up and play that role,” he said. “You don’t have the organizations and you don’t have the funding for these organizations. It’s a circular problem. There’s no money because no one advocates for it.”
The compounding problem, others said, is that attempts to acquire government funding – either core or project-based – for the purpose of trying to address systemic problems are non-starters.
"There’s zero funding for anything that might be remotely political and anything that says the system is broken," said Tribe of OpenMedia.
There’s zero funding for anything that might be remotely political and anything that says the system is broken.
PIAC’s Lawford suggests a major problem for community leadership on infrastructure and internet access issues stems from the fact that, unlike many other developed nations, Canada has no legally mandated universal service obligation when it comes to ensuring that citizens are connected. The United States has such a requirement under its Communications Act of 1934, but Canada has no equivalent. The result is that, while the U.S. system is imperfect, the government is compelled to provide funding to civil society groups, both project-specific and core.
“They do these things explicitly because the law makes them,” he said. “There’s no overarching requirement that our government make that happen. Here, it’s all touchy feely and we hope it happens and then complain when it doesn’t.”
Judy Duncan, head organizer for ACORN Canada, points to efforts by telecom companies in providing less-expensive internet services to low-income families across Canada as an example of this approach in action. The offerings, while welcome, are ad hoc, seemingly half-hearted and ultimately insufficient to deal with the underlying problems.
“Government isn’t making them do it,” she said. “The government is letting it be piecemeal and hoping that’s good enough. There’s no leadership there.”
Government isn’t making [telcos] do it – [provide less-expensive internet services to low-income families]. The government is letting it be piecemeal and hoping that’s good enough. There’s no leadership there.
Again, stakeholders noted, the problem is circular. Government won’t force action if there is nothing or no one pushing it to do so.
CIRA's role in digital philanthropy
CIRA was incorporated in 1998 as a non-profit corporation charged with administering the .CA top-level domain and officially sanctioned to perform this role by the government of Canada the following year. As of May 2020, CIRA was administering more than 2.9 million active domains. The corporation’s goal is to “promote a trusted internet for Canadians.”
In addition to its management of the .CA domain, CIRA provides businesses, organizations and individuals with security products such as DNS Firewall and Canadian Shield, as well as Cybersecurity Awareness Training. Since 2014, CIRA has also been administering the Community Investment Program, which delivers $1.25 million in grants per year to internet-related projects.
Community Investment Program
$1.25 million in annual grants
CIRA’s current funding focus especially looks for initiatives that benefit students, as well as northern, rural and Indigenous communities. Non-profit organizations, registered charities and academics at universities and colleges in Canada are all eligible to apply, with grants available up to $100,000. Additionally, one grant of up $250,000 is available each year.
Funding is provided on a project basis and up to 15 per cent of a grant budget can be allocated to the applicant’s overhead or core operations costs. In the seven years since its inception, the program has awarded $7.95 million across 171 projects.
171 projects funded
In June of this year, CIRA announced funding for 20 projects, including:
- reBOOT Canada will work with local Indigenous and rural youth in five small communities in Northern Ontario to train them to set up and operate free Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario will lead a study on options for high-speed fibre optic connectivity to improve internet access for its 800 residents.
- Siksika Health Services in southern Alberta will upgrade the internet infrastructure in five central community buildings, providing high-speed internet to its youth, elders, staff and the greater community.
57% familiar with Community Investment Program
42% describe CIRA as trustworthy and approachable
Digital development stakeholders within the internet sector hold generally positive views of CIRA, according to The Strategic Counsel survey. Fifty-seven per cent are familiar with the CIP, while only eight per cent are unfamiliar. Forty-two per cent described the organization as trustworthy and approachable.
A number believed that CIRA, because of its unique position as a relatively well-funded non-profit corporation with a neutral interest in digital development, could fill the leadership void and do more to organize disparate groups and efforts in Canada. CIRA could:
- Help build sector-wide capacity by partnering with other funders to increase available funds, including educating other funders on the issues and needs in this space.
- Partner with other, non-technical organizations, especially ones that focus on equity and access for marginalized and under-served communities.
- Help build capacity within key organizations that are working toward strategic goals by providing longer-term, stable funding and support.
- Expand opportunities for smaller and newer entrants to access micro-grants.
- Increase the ability of not-for-profits to respond to emerging issues via rapid response grants and/or continuous application cycles.
- Leverage its own expertise by providing or facilitating more technical resources and support to other organizations.
“CIRA’s biggest challenge has always been outreach,” said one not-for-profit. “They’d probably be better at outreach if they partnered with more community-based organizations. There are a lot of organizations that they could develop strong partnerships with, organizations that have great networks. That would actually go a really long way. Outreach into more grassroots organizations would be tremendously important… there’s a tremendous opportunity for an organization like CIRA to partner with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, for example.”
“There could be a greater pursuit of [indirect support for advocacy]… whether you’re funding greater participation in policy processes or underlying research to support positions to be taken, there are ways to do it that allow for a comfort level that you’re supporting evidence-based policy development and groups to participate, without necessarily backing a particular position,” said one academic. “There’s a real need for it, and CIRA is really well-placed at a time when there are not many other groups that are well-placed to help.”
Whether you’re funding greater participation in policy processes or underlying research to support positions to be taken, there are ways to do it that … without necessarily backing a particular position.
Surman, of the Mozilla Foundation, said SIDN – the Netherlands internet registrar – could serve as a model for deeper involvement by CIRA in digital development in that it operates a full philanthropic arm and research lab.
“It’s one of the few actors that could kickstart a solution to what is effectively a 20-year problem,” he said. “In other countries, you do have organizations that are a countervailing or balancing voice to industry. Government is never going to fund that. CIRA is someone who can.”
[CIRA’s] one of the few actors that could kickstart a solution to what is effectively a 20-year problem. In other countries, you do have organizations that are a countervailing or balancing voice to industry. Government is never going to fund that. CIRA is someone who can.
It is worth noting that even if CIRA were to undertake an expansion of such actitivies, the funding needs of stakeholders in this sector are extraordinary. Simply put, CIRA cannot do it alone. Significantly more funding from significantly more sources is needed to address the underlying systemic issues and imbalances that exist in Canadian digital development.
Philanthropic organizations in Canada and elsewhere need to be made aware of these issues and energized to the fact that there is great need when it comes to ensuring that all Canadians can participate in an increasingly digital economy and society. Many people were already being left behind, and now in the COVID-19 era, the digital and democratic disconnect has only grown.
The funding of digital development should be on par with health, education and climate change. Canada’s future depends on it, which is why philanthropic organizations must step forward.
COVID-19 has cast Canada’s digital divide into sharp relief. The debate over whether the internet is an essential service is officially over. Now we need the resources and will to help ensure that trusted, high quality internet access is a reality for each and every Canadian.
The debate over whether the internet is an essential service is officially over. Now we need the resources and will to help ensure that trusted, high quality internet access is a reality for each and every Canadian.
CIRA’s research shows that funding gaps and policy imbalances are holding far too many Canadians back from full participation in an increasingly digital economy and society. This was the case before COVID-19, and now with the pandemic, we are seeing an even greater polarization between those who do and don’t have access. The cascading effects of this exclusion are playing out in every part of our lives – education, health, the economy, our friends and family – and if they are not addressed soon, many Canadians will continue to be left behind.
The research findings call for action, and across the board, respondents converge on these key recommendations below.
1) Canada must develop a tradition of digital philanthropy.
- Civil society organizations, all levels of government, community groups, and organizations like CIRA must work together to promote an understanding of digital philanthropy across the Canadian philanthropic community. It is essential that they understand the urgent need to support Canada’s digital development.
- Donors need to feel confident, informed, supported and able to engage in this funding area so that it can be as well-known and understood as well-resourced issues like environmental conservation and community development.
- Funders active in other social and community development issues are not yet seeing internet as integral to the change they seek to make. More conversations, exchange and support for funders is required to break down hesitation, as well as funding silos, so that Internet initiatives can be seen and embraced as a means to promoting economic development, racial justice, and other social good.
We will know we are successful when there is enough funding and collective support to get high quality internet access to every Canadian. This means connecting the hardest to connect communities as well as ensuring that people have the skills they need to use the internet effectively.
2) Canada needs a bigger, more diverse and transparent funding ecosystem.
- There are very few funders engaged in funding digital development across Canada. We need many more players to join the digital funding game – private foundations, tech philanthropies, social investors to start – and then, we must coordinate information and knowledge sharing around what this much larger ecosystem has to offer, so communities can easily connect the dots and find what they need.
3) Funders must encourage and support a vibrant public interest advocacy community.
- Funding for public participation to engage in policy advocacy around how the internet is deployed in Canada is just about non-existent and this urgently needs to change so that the real needs of communities are not overlooked when governments make decisions regarding pricing and infrastructure investments.
- The few civil society internet advocacy initiatives in Canada now are under-resourced, and their loss would be a serious blow to what limited democratic participation there is in policy and regulation around Canada’s internet.
- We need the expertise of these organizations, and more like them, to help Canadians understand the implications of how government and industry are creating the digital platform our society is built around - and this means opening up sources of stable long-term funding for civil society to have a permanent seat at the table alongside government and industry.
- Unblocking these policy and regulatory barriers will unlock community resources and enable localized responses around issues like internet access, cybersecurity, and digital literacy.
4) Innovative thinking is needed in how digital philanthropy funding is made available.
- Civil society organizations and community groups working on internet-related projects are asking funders to trade some control around current funding practices for trust, greater flexibility and long-term investment in order to let communities determine the best digital solutions for their local context.
- The current environment of funding scarcity for digital initiatives emphasizes competition. Stakeholders are asserting that collaborative, community-driven, co-created solutions are a preferred way forward – with a shift from short-term project funding to longer-term core funding being a desired outcome that will better serve everyone’s interests.
The leadership and catalyst role that CIRA plays through its flagship $1.25 million granting initiative is appreciated by stakeholders in this sector, but it is far from enough. The need for funders to step up and join CIRA in this work is clear, and the time is now for all of us to build a tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada.