Bridging the digital divide: ways to address technology infrastructure and improve nonprofit outcomes as we settle into the “new normal”

Weinberg Foundation Logo

Anne Allen
Program Officer

Jon Hornstein
Program Director

For decades, technology has been key to nonprofit capacity building, but the pandemic made technology infrastructure critical to nonprofit survival in delivering basic services. Since March 2020, Weinberg Foundation grantees have expressed especially urgent IT needs, such as expanding telehealth services to rural communities and installing software to better track and deliver food to families in need.

In addition, a discussion of technology infrastructure is incomplete without acknowledgment that there is also an issue of racial equity and inclusion, with nonprofits currently reckoning with the ubiquitous digital divide. In Baltimore, where the Foundation is headquartered, a report found that more than 40 percent of households do not have wireless internet, and one-third do not have a computer. The digital divide amplifies existing structural racism—Black and Hispanic adults in the US are overall less likely than white adults to have a traditional computer or home broadband.

Based on conversations with grantees, the Foundation made a series of grants, including a new partnership with NTEN, focused on IT infrastructure. This innovative partnership will provide a cohort-based, year-long technology training, as well as project development support for 100 Jewish nonprofits. These organizations include members of The Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA) and Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), as well as other Weinberg Foundation grantees, culminating in major IT upgrades at these organizations. The Foundation is also partnering with TechSoup to support upgrades to cloud technology software and related training for a cohort of Baltimore-based nonprofits.  

Below are several learnings from our work to-date that we hope might help other funders when pursuing similar work.

Engage grantees concerning IT needs. As part of capital support, the Foundation has traditionally focused on building development and renovations. But more recently, and especially since the pandemic, we now include specific questions around IT needs when approached about capital support. These intentional conversations allow grantees to better reflect on their IT infrastructure and lead to more strategic requests that truly support capacity building.

Support professional IT development and nonprofit peer learning. Through the Foundation’s NTEN partnership, we found that IT staff at nonprofits are often not credentialed or trained in technology. Nonprofits also often implement costly IT products, only to discover that poor implementation resulted in low usability and impact. Equipping staff with skills to have a strategic IT “roadmap” allows organizations to acquire critical IT tools and use and adapt IT strategically to benefit the entire organization. Fostering peer-learning cohorts allows IT staff to problem-solve across agencies and share best practices, while playing a critical role in assessing IT needs across the nonprofit sector and informing philanthropy.

Invest in IT infrastructure to address racial equity and inclusion. Many BIPOC-led and -serving nonprofits have weak, antiquated IT systems. This is not surprising given that one report found that unrestricted assets of Black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts. This lack of operational investment in IT threatens service quality and capacity of BIPOC communities to pursue economic opportunity. Grants that support IT help organizations create better access to services and equip people with digital literacy skills and devices needed to close the digital divide. Admittedly, while we addressed the digital divide through partnerships that include the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition and TechSoup, we need to do more to advance racial equity in this area.

Translate “tech infrastructure” into social impact outcomes. To spark interest and action, we challenge the field to do a better job in “decoding” IT’s critical role in social service delivery.

Examples—

  • Nonprofit A: Outcomes management software allowed for data review that helped redesign its job training program and improve job retention outcomes for individuals with disabilities.
  • Nonprofit B: Cybersecurity upgrades allowed for compliance with regulatory requirements, leveraging federal dollars, and doubling capacity to serve at-risk youth.
  • Nonprofit C: Upgrading donor database systems increased donor engagement, resulting in revenue growth that increased services to help residents reenter their communities.

As a result of the pandemic, we now know that IT infrastructure can no longer be viewed as an “add on” for nonprofits. It is a fundamental component to achieve social impact. We also know that economic inclusion is contingent on digital inclusion. From education to health care to banking, digital connectivity is a requisite precursor to full participation in our economy.

Let us all seize this moment and address the digital divide, ultimately allowing our most vulnerable populations to generate profound economic opportunities.  

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