How to Talk to Foundations about Fiber Networks (true to engage other sectors too!)

Bernadine Joselyn is down in Austin TX at the Broadband Conference representing the Blandin Foundation and talking about the role of foundations in broadband deployment and adoption. Her comments are particularly salient given the issue at the Legislature these days about whether to continue to fund broadband efforts in Minnesota. Bernadine starts by saying that “the Challenge of Gigafying America is too complex for any one sector to tackle alone.” She’s right. And maybe her comments will remind policymakers how important it is to work together to bring broadband to everyone. Here are her notes…

Bernadine_InCommonsHow to Talk to Foundations about Fiber Networks

Thank you for this opportunity to share a few reflections on the role of philanthropy in “Gigifying America.”

Indeed, the Challenge of Gigafying America is too complex for any one sector to tackle alone.

Foundations can and should be helpful partners in bringing broadband networks – and their benefits – to everyone in America regardless of income or zip code.

At Blandin Foundation, we have come to understand that broadband access – and the skills to use it – are fundamental to everything we care about as a foundation.

I believe you can say “ditto” for the whole philanthropic sector – even if they don’t know it yet.

So, while building community demand for broadband-enabled services is good for your business –  it’s also good for communities, which is what philanthropy is after.

Community vitality is the public purpose at the heart of building fiber networks.

Community vitality is:

  • the shared ground on which partnerships with philanthropy can be built.
  • where each sector’s purpose and “self-interest” overlap (sustainable partnerships depend on each partner having its own interests well met).

What’s more, building sustainable fiber networks is as much about human beings as it is technology.  Maybe more.

  • Recently I heard someone quip that building successful networks is 80% sociology and 20% technology.

Foundations can help with the sociology part.

Foundations are well positioned to be your partners in creating, sustaining and growing broadband demand and utilization in the communities you serve.

And contrary to popular belief, foundations can be more than just funding partners.

Besides financial resources – grants – foundations have a whole suite of unique resources to bring to the table; other forms of “capital” that can be applied to the challenges of building markets for fast networks, improving digital fluency, and ensuring affordable access for all.

For example foundations can:

  • serve as “honest broker” conveners
  • be “knowledge entrepreneurs”
  • frame/inform public discourse
  • raise public awareness
  • recruit the attention and resources of sister philanthropies
  • commission and promulgate relevant research
  • bring promising practices to community broadband champions
  • deliver or sponsor community planning and visioning
  • provide direct facilitation, technical and/or staff support to community leadership teams
  • offer leadership training
  • host conferences and conversations

In all of these ways can foundations help communities be smarter and more active consumers of your networks.

Here are just a couple of examples of how we at Blandin Foundation use our various tools foundation to advance the public purpose of a fully internet-enabled society:

  • We use our “knowledge entrepreneur” role to inform, educate, and inspire community members… though hosting webinar series, e-newsletters, the Blandin on Broadband blog, statewide conferences
  • We use our convening tools to catalyze conversations on technology planning and facilitate community visioning, goal setting and prioritization…. by
  • We use our financial capital to fund projects that arise from community deliberation. Mostly on the demand/utilization side.  But we have found a modest, but catalytic, way to respond to and advance community aspirations for increased connectivity, for example through funding feasibility studies.
  • We use our reputational and strategic communications capital to engage other funders and other sources of funding in support of community-defined technology goals.  One way we do this is by requiring match to help incentivize investments by others and cross-sectoral collaboration.
  • We use our own human capital (staff resources) to catalyze and support the community engagement process with facilitation support and technical assistance.
  • We use our community leadership development programs to help build the capacity of local leaders to name and claim their own futures by asking: what must we do together that we cannot do alone?

For us at Blandin, the end game is to help bake a “culture of use” across community systems of education, planning, governance, communication, health care delivery and access, and civic engagement.

Your challenge in courting possible philanthropic partners in your network build efforts is to help them connect the dots between your networks, the benefits that come from technologically literate, well-connected communities, and the mission of your potential foundation partners.

This is not hard to do.

Everything foundations care about depends on equal access to an open internet.

For starters, you could quote Luis Ubinas, former Ford Foundation President, who famously said, exhorting all of philanthropy:

As the Internet becomes a gateway to democratic participation, economic opportunity, and human expression, it is critical to the future of our country—and to our philanthropic missions—to ensure that everyone has high-speed, or “broadband,” access to an open Internet.

And you can point to the multiple public benefits of digitally fluent, well connected communities…. Most foundation goals and aspirations can find a place on this only partial list:

  • Social justice: Equal opportunity for all
  • Economic Vitality:
  • Affordable and accessible Health Care:
  • World-Class educational opportunities for all:
  • Entrepreneur-friendly local economies:
  • Efficient government services:
  • Youth attraction and retention:
  • Job attraction and retention
  • work force development,
  • innovation,
  • educational opportunity for all
  • job growth
  • wealth creation
  • civic vibrancy

It is easy to demonstrate – we’ve got the data now people – that each one of these issue areas or goals – is enhanced by broadband access and utilization.

Everything is better with broadband.  Everything is better with better broadband.

But it’s gonna take technology AND sociology to realize those benefits.

So – appealing to what in the business we call “mission fit” is one strategy for talking to philanthropy about why they should care about broadband.

I want to leave you with these thoughts:

  • Access to blazing speed broadband networks is key – but it is not enough: without concerted, community-based efforts to ensure that all citizens are able to take advantage of the Internet, the digital divide will continue to undermine America’s promise as a democracy where equal opportunity is available to all.       Philanthropy cares about this, and that’s your door to pitching partnership.
  • Community-based broadband literacy and market development efforts can and do work. It takes partnership. It’s worth the investment.  Thank you.
This entry was posted in Blandin Foundation, Digital Divide by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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