Digital divide, Part 1

By Todd Cohen

Ten years ago, when he took a job in the Los Angeles office of Amnesty International, Joe Baker learned quickly about the big gap in technology resources between the corporate and nonprofit worlds.

In his previous job, conducting telecommunications research for Rockwell International, Baker had six computers in his office.

At Amnesty, the entire L.A. staff shared a computer modem, and once a month mailed a computer disc to the organization’s U.S. headquarters in New York City, where the headquarters staff synchronized databases mailed from all its offices and then returned the computer discs.

Today, as executive director of the San Francisco-based Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, or NTEN, Baker has the job of championing support for nonprofits in their use of technology, a task he said had changed dramatically in the past five years.

Five years ago, small and mid-sized nonprofits were gaining access to hardware, software and training through donations and discounted package deals.

While today they typically have computers, internet access, email and basic software applications, experts say, nonprofits still often lack the training and leadership to use that technology effectively, and are finding it tough to secure funding to pay for technology as an ongoing cost of doing business.

“There are very few nonprofits that don’t operate with email, a website, and a fairly rudimentary database for keeping track of donors and accounting functions,” says Barbara Chang, executive director of NpowerNY, a New York City nonprofit that provides tech support to local nonprofits and is part of the Seattle-based national NPower network.

Today, “many nonprofits are requesting more sophisticated uses of technology for work they do in the community,” she says. “It’s more expensive and requires more strategic vision on the part of nonprofits.”

Equally challenging for nonprofits, experts say, is the need to address the growing gap between Americans with access to technology and those without access.

After peaking in 2000, they say, public and private efforts to bridge the “digital divide” have declined, despite a widening gulf between digital haves and have-nots, particularly based on education, income and ethnicity.

“We’ve done a very good job at getting middle-class, mainstream America online,” says Andy Carvin, director of the Digital Divide Network at the EDC Center for Media and Community in Newton, Mass. “But we’ve still failed at addressing digital-divide issues as far as it affects low-income families, ethnic minorities, households with limited education and people with disabilities.”

Other stories in series:

Part 2 — Nonprofits making more strategic use of technology.
Part 3 — Nonprofits plug into technology from afar.
Part 4 — Nonprofits face funding gap for technology.
Part 5 — Nonprofits find it tough to find tech support.
Part 6 — Nonprofits work to bridge gap in constituents’ tech access.

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