Section 4: What Digital Inclusion Coalitions Do

People learning internet skills at the Rockwood Library in Multnomah County

Like any organization, your community-wide digital inclusion coalition exists to enable its members, working together, to accomplish goals they can’t accomplish separately. And like any organization, your community-wide digital inclusion coalition needs a strategic plan to accomplish those goals.

In Section 1, we point to three effects that any well-organized community coalition is likely to produce: an advocacy effect (bringing public attention to its shared goals), an alignment effect (increasing the ability of its participants to “push in the same direction”), and a network effect (creating the opportunity for subgroups of participants to form new working relationships). These beneficial results of effective coalitions occur almost automatically, regardless of the specific goals and strategic activities they pursue.

If any effective community-wide digital inclusion coalition is likely to produce these effects, then are they the reason for organizing a community-wide digital inclusion coalition? To some extent, yes. Simply associating regularly with others who share our goals, “seeing and being seen,” experiencing solidarity with like-minded neighbors and finding opportunities for new collaborations through networking–these are genuinely valuable for many of us.

But a coalition is more than a networking event. Busy people from a variety of institutions and organizations are not likely to invest scarce time and resources without the expectation of significant concrete returns–for themselves and their organizations, for the community at large or both.

Any coalition that hopes to thrive must identify clear, important, shared goals and objectives and devise and execute specific action strategies to realize them.

Strategic Planning

It’s not our intention here to describe the strategic-planning process. Most community leaders and activists are familiar with some form of the planning framework that’s often called “VMOSA” (Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies and Action Plans).5 When we use the terms, “mission,” “objectives,” etc., we’re referring to their meanings in the VMOSA framework. Generally, the “mission” describes the coalition’s broad, long-term goals; the “objectives” describe specific short-term goals (one or two years) that the coalition has identified as important steps toward accomplishing its mission; a “strategy” describes the systematic path by which the coalition hopes to accomplish an objective; and an “action plan” lays out all the specific activities, roles, timelines, etc., for implementing a strategy.

Here’s how part of a VMOSA planning outline might look for one hypothetical digital inclusion coalition with at least one very ambitious objective:

Vision Every citizen of our community has home internet access and basic skills to use it.
Mission Promote universal, affordable broadband accessand basic digital literacy through coordinated, adequately resourced public and community initiatives.
Objectives Objective 1: develop plan for citywide wifi network by 2020
  1. Needs assessment leading to
  2. Community discussions, leading to
  3. City Council support for normal plan
Action Plan
  1. Form sponsoring committee (July)
  2. Raise $$ for needs assessment (Sept)
  3. Assessment completed (Mar 2019)
  4. Community discussions (Apr-Sep 2019)
  5. Propose to Council by Oct 2019

That’s just an example. While the missions and broad goals of community-wide digital inclusion coalitions are generally similar, their objectives, strategies and action plans vary a great deal from community to community.

What follows are examples of the varied objectives and strategies of coalitions we surveyed for this Guidebook.

Strategy Implementation Cycle

What objectives and strategies will make sense for a community-wide digital inclusion coalition in your community?

That’s something only you and your local partners can decide. If you want your coalition to survive and grow, make sure that your objectives and strategies check these boxes:

  • They follow logically from the vision and mission your members have agreed on.
  • They address real community needs and opportunities, as seen by your local digital inclusion practitioners and champions.
  • They’re pragmatic and specific enough to succeed, within the limits of influence and resources your coalition members can bring to bear.
  • They’re also ambitious enough to make a difference, justifying the time and effort invested by coalition members.
  • They unite rather than divide the varied interests of your members. (A coalition that seeks more resources or influence for some of its participants, but not for others, won’t remain a coalition for long!)

In practice, situations vary depending on the organizations involved in your coalition, the digital “facts on the ground” in your community, the local resource situation, politics, personalities, etc.

What Digital Inclusion Coalitions are Doing Now

The key strategic objectives and strategies of the coalitions whose leaders we interviewed fall into four broad categories:

  1. Professional development for local digital inclusion practitioners.
  2. Support for the development of new strategic program alignments.
  3. Improved factual understanding of the community’s digital inclusion needs and resources (i.e., resource mapping)
  4. Public education and advocacy regarding the community’s digital divide, why it matters and how to overcome it.

1. Professional development for digital inclusion practitioners

Professional development–creating a stronger collaborative network, shared program resources, improved programming and enhanced professional skills for digital inclusion organizations and their staff–is a key strategic focus for some coalitions.

A good example is Philadelphia’s Technology Learning Collaborative (TLC), whose mission statement is explicit: “The mission of the Technology Learning Collaborative is to sustain a robust network of community-based organizations doing digital literacy work, to improve and expand programming across Philadelphia, share and promote member resources to the wider communities we serve, offer professional training and development for member staff, collaborate on high priority interest areas, and advocate for projects and programs that promote digital literacy and reduce the digital divide... As a professional association TLC brings together agencies with diverse missions to accomplish common goals through digital literacy programming.”

TLC’s website goes on to list “some of the things we do:”

  • Develop programmatic areas, including GED/ABE, Adult Literacy, Workforce Development
  • Share resources, program information, digital literacy instructors
  • Convene regularly to improve and test new ideas with other TLC members through the TLC Series, a set of quarterly trainings and an annual conference on digital literacy and instruction
  • Identify volunteer needs and placement opportunities for digital literacy work
  • Promote programs that promote digital literacy and equitable Internet access

TLC’s focus on practical collaborations, peer networking and “improving the field” has enabled the organization to survive and grow since 2013 without a paid staff. TLC’s Annual Conference, held since 2013, now draws several hundred participants from a membership of nearly one hundred organizations and businesses. Members also have access to a listserv, regular professional development workshops, shared teaching materials and contacts for instructors and volunteers.

TLC is a striking example of a coalition that focuses its work on professional development, resource and skill sharing and peer support. But it’s not unique. Several of the coalitions we interviewed have similar professional support objectives for local practitioners and similar strategies to pursue those objectives: annual gatherings, workshops and networking events, email forums, etc.

Professional development activities enable coalitions to infuse best practices and new knowledge into the community. Sometimes this may involve reaching outside the community–sponsoring speakers or linking coalition participants to peers in other communities or national networks like NDIA.

But in general, your members are your best resource. Regardless of how they first became engaged, local practitioners and champions often possess unique skill sets for digital inclusion work and should be explored first as professional development resources. Coalitions may find it useful to survey their members to understand what knowledge gaps exist based on local and national trends and to inquire about their competency as potential trainers.

2. Supporting new strategic program alignments

Any process that creates new interactions among digital inclusion organizations will probably set the scene for some new collaborations via the “Network effect” (see Section 1). The coalitions that we interviewed, however, all deliberately foster what might be called “networking for new program partnerships” among their participants.

It’s important to make a distinction here: None of the coalitions we interviewed has tried to create or operate programs itself. What they do instead–by introducing previously unconnected players, providing networking breaks and social time at meetings and framing conversations about their participants’ efforts and about unmet community needs and opportunities–is encourage the formation of new partnerships and collaborative programs by subgroups of coalition members.

Examples include a library working with a healthcare provider to train library patrons to use a patient portal; a device-refurbishing company offering heavily discounted computers to workforce program trainees; and a radio station teaming up with a youth-focused STEM organization to promote an upcoming summer camp. The San Antonio Digital Inclusion Coalition provided the setting for a major new partnership between the housing authority and the local Goodwill Industries; the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance has arranged meetings among local housing developers, banks and the Federal Reserve District on potential digital inclusion collaborations that could draw Community Reinvestment Act support.

These new initiatives aren’t owned by the coalitions that helped bring them into existence, but their successes can fairly be counted as the coalitions’ successes as well… advancing their broad digital inclusion missions, strengthening their collaborative networks and demonstrating the value of participation to others in the community.

3. Improved factual understanding of the community’s digital inclusion needs and resources

Charlotte Digital Inclusion PlaybookAmong the most common obstacles facing local digital inclusion advocates is the absence of good shared data… either about the extent and nature of local need (households without broadband, impact on particular neighborhoods and demographics, implications for employment/education/healthcare, etc.), or about the financial, organizational and human resources that could be engaged to meet that need.

Some digital inclusion coalitions, notably those involving city governments and universities as partners, have taken the lead (or provided impetus for others) to fill in these gaps. One of the first projects of the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance was the publication of a Digital Inclusion Playbook,6 which includes a compilation of public data on broadband and computer access in Charlotte, “an assessment of current barriers to digital equity and inclusion,” and “a timeline of local and national initiatives addressing these barriers.” In a similar vein, the City of Portland’s Office for Community Technology, which took the lead in 2014 to convene the Portland/Multnomah County Digital Inclusion Network, worked with the Multnomah County Library to sponsor a Digital Equity Needs and Opportunities Report in 2015 and then with other DIN members to gather community feedback for the city’s official Digital Equity Action Plan, which was adopted in 2016 by the Portland City Council.

In Austin, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin collaborated with the City of Austin to perform a survey in 2014 that gathered essential information about local geographic differences in access to digital and mobile technology, internet usage practices and attitudes regarding digital technology and development, while also collecting important demographic data. Results from this survey contributed to the understanding of local residents’ media and technology use and helped scholars, nonprofit organizations and public institutions, such as the Austin Public Library, collaborate effectively to address digital divide issues.

Coalitions that undertake this kind of fact-finding and resource-mapping strategies are far better positioned to consider the fourth main category of strategic initiative, public education and advocacy.

4. Public education and advocacy

All of the coalitions we interviewed are clearly engaged in advocacy of some kind. To start with, there’s the “advocacy effect” that happens automatically when someone creates a public entity with “digital inclusion” or “technology literacy” in its name, invites others to participate and holds public events. If nothing else, those actions say to community decision-makers and the public: “This is a real need, you should take it seriously, and you should support our efforts.” That message is louder when the coalition’s members include recognized community leaders (especially elected officials) and public institutions like libraries and housing authorities.

Definition of “advocacy”

Political advocacy in the form of lobbying elected officials to enact a policy change is the most widely referenced example of advocacy and is accompanied by legal restrictions for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations and public agencies. Coalitions should be informed about how these restrictions factor into their strategies for engagement but not dissuaded from interacting with elected officials. We recommend resources provided by the National Council of Nonprofits10 or the National Conference of State Legislatures11 for introductory information before consulting with the coalition’s board (or convening organization) if this is an intended course of advocacy.

But most digital inclusion coalitions do more than “advocate by example.” The launches of coalitions in Portland/Multnomah County, Austin and Charlotte were associated with the release of digital inclusion plans (official city plans in the first two cases and Charlotte’s “Playbook” in the third). These documents included recommendations for public as well as private actions. The beginnings of the coalitions in Portland/Multnomah County, Kansas City and San Antonio all involved Digital Inclusion Summits at which elected officials, among others, spoke of the need to make digital inclusion a public policy priority. The coalitions we interviewed all make themselves available to the media as advocates for their members’ programs, their own initiatives and digital inclusion, in general. Most also use social media for these purposes and participate to some extent in events like Digital Inclusion Week.

Tip: Create a consistent public message by developing coalition talking points for members’ use with the media, on social media and/or interaction with public officials.

Yet when asked, none of the leaders we interviewed identified “advocacy” as a strategic priority for their coalitions.

This is not surprising. For many in the nonprofit world, “advocacy” feels like a code word for lobbying public officials. Of course, legislative lobbying is a restricted activity for tax-exempt nonprofits, but it also has connotations of electoral politics and of controversy. So nonprofit leaders have an ingrained tendency to avoid the term when discussing their organizations’ work.

San Antonio Housing Authority

“When the new mayoral administration came on we all agreed that we wanted to meet with the mayor’s office as a [coalition] and remind the mayor’s office that they had a seat at the Alliance, even though it wasn’t them individually, but they were inheriting something.”
-Richard Milk, San Antonio Housing Authority

But in reality, whether we prefer to call the activities in question “advocacy” or “public education,” the missions and objectives of all digital inclusion coalitions, spoken or unspoken, are likely to include:

  • persuading community leaders and the public to take the need for digital inclusion more seriously;
  • increasing the community influence of our member organizations;
  • making a case for more support (including funding) for our member programs;
  • creating legitimacy and support for other public or community initiatives, e.g., affordable broadband options for low-income neighborhoods.

It might be challenging for your coalition to discuss its advocacy objectives and strategies frankly, especially if public officials and institutions are among your members. It is important to find a way to have that discussion.