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Foundation aims to plug digital gap

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By Todd Cohen

Los Angeles-based Familia Unida Living with Multiple Sclerosis uses a broadband internet connection to provide access to information and services for people with disabilities who speak little English.

Tribal Digital Village, a consortium of 18 Native-American tribes in rural San Diego County, piloted a wireless mesh networking system to plug member families into the internet for distance learning, job training and outside communications.

And Los Angeles-based Great Beginnings for Black Babies has equipped its field staff with personal-digital-assistant devices to better serve clients at risk for poor birth outcomes and child development.

All three nonprofits received grants from the San Francisco-based Community Technology Foundation of California.

Formed as a result of the 1997 merger of SBC Communications in San Antonio, Tex., and Pacific Telesis Group in San Francisco, the foundation operates under an agreement approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The agreement calls for the foundation to receive 10 annual installments of $5 million each through 2008, and to make grants to benefit underserved populations throughout the state that have limited access to affordable and accessible telecommunications services, training and education.

“Without appropriate investment in the population and its ability to contribute to society, then you will have a society in decline,” says Tessie Guillermo, the foundation’s president and CEO.

Since 1999, the foundation, at zerodivide.org, has made more than 500 grants totaling $27.7 million to 375 nonprofits.

While the foundation continues to make grants to help nonprofits build their technology capacity and secure technical assistance, it has expanded its focus to include helping them create and distribute content to serve their clients.

“It wasn’t enough to fund access to technology and capacity-building,” Guillermo says. “Clients and organizations that served their clients weren’t going to really integrate technology strategically unless there was content that was relevant for these populations.”

And advances in technology, including high-speed broadband connections to the internet, have made it easier to develop and distribute content, she says.

Grants typically range from $5,000 to $200,000, and go to grassroots groups working at a neighborhood level, and to groups with statewide projects.

Before making a grant, the foundation assesses the ability of the applicant to carry out its program, including its organizational stability, financial health and ability to deliver telecommunications and tech-based services to underserved populations.

If it finds an applicant lacks capacity, the foundation’s staff works directly with the group to build its capacity and increase its ability to handle a larger grant.

Familia Unida Living with Multiple Sclerosis, for example, initially asked for $100,000, but the foundation turned down that request, saying the nonprofit was new and had little history or capacity.

Instead, the foundation gave the group $25,000 to help it prepare a technology plan that led to a $60,000 grant to provide online services to people severely restricted in their daily life because of MS.

Through a broadband internet connection, the group provides access for its clients to educational materials, self-help groups and communication with health-care professionals.

The group also took part in Ticket to Work, a federal workforce-development initiative of the Social Security Administration that serves people with disabilities, and received a third grant, for $100,000, from the foundation to build its technology capacity and expand its services to serve clients speaking Japanese and Chinese in addition to those speaking Spanish and English.

In 2004, the nonprofit enabled over 5,000 people with disabilities who had limited proficiency in English gain access to employment services without putting their public benefits at risk.

As a result, it expected client demand this year to grow by half.

In addition to its focus on capacity-building, tech assistance, content and media, the foundation works on technology policy, advocacy and research.

“We need to assure that the underserved communities in California continue to have access to technology,” Guillermo says.

With the Public Utilities Commission considering rules and regulations involving the deployment of broadband technology throughout the state, for example, the foundation has submitted testimony and worked with other groups actively involved in shaping the commission’s decisions to make sure broadband is available in inner-cities, rural areas and suburban neighborhoods.

The foundation also is pushing to ensure that communities providing wireless access to the internet include underserved populations, and that bids to provide local cable franchises are the result of competition and offer choices to consumers.

The foundation also has teamed up with the Center for Nonprofit Management at the University of San Francisco to identify the characteristics of nonprofits that make them more likely or less likely to be able to adopt technology effectively to advance their mission.

And it is working with the School of Public Affairs at UCLA and community-based groups to use geographic information systems to map the deployment of broadband networks throughout the state, and to overlay those maps with social, economic and demographic characteristics of the populations served and not served by those networks.

At the rate at which it is making grants, the foundation would run out of assets in 2009, Guillermo says, but has launched the quiet phase of an endowment campaign to raise another $50 million from individual donors and partnerships with corporations and foundations.

“The board decided a couple of years ago they really think the value of the foundation goes beyond the 10-year time-frame,” she says. “The goal is to see if we can operate for another 10 years.”

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