How Grants Can Use Technology to Support Seniors in Rural and Urban Communities

Last week Bernadine Joselyn spoke to the Grantmakers In Aging 2015 Annual Conference in DC. The theme was Soaring into the Future: Seeking New Horizons in Aging and Philanthropy. She had an opportunity to talk about the work that Blandin Broadband Communities have done to better serve elder citizens with broadband. I wanted to share Bernadine’s notes and the video that she shared with the group..

Why Every Grant Maker should Care about Broadband

It’s a pleasure to speak to an audience of philanthropists who care about Aging.  My message to you today is that if you care about aging, you need to care about broadband.

  • Everything is better with broadband.
  • Everything is better with better broadband.
  • Including (especially) aging.

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.

We are not the Broadband Foundation.  Our mission is to support healthy rural communities.  Yet we focus on helping communities get and use broadband.  Why?

Because we have found that at whatever level we engage – the individual, the family, organization, or the community or the system as a whole,  broadband is the necessary – though of course not sufficient– prerequisite for quality of life and a vibrant prosperous economy where burdens and benefits are widely shared.

In fact, I am prepared to make the argument that everything your foundation cares about depends on equal access to an open internet.

Exhorting all of philanthropy, former Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas famously said:

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.

Today, some communities in America have decent broadband.  Many don’t.  Especially rural communities, and especially rural communities served by incumbent for-profit providers where it’s hard to make a strong business case for upgrading infrastructure.

  • While 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) lack access to broadband at the new FCC definition (25 Mbps/3 Mbps service). ….
  • …a whopping 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) and 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to connectivity that meets the FCC definition of broadband.
  • Moreover, rural America continues to be underserved at all speeds:  20 percent lack access even to service at 4 Mbps/1 Mbps.

As a rule, even in those communities with decent broadband access, the elderly make up a big slice of folks who are least likely to use the internet.

In fact, according to research Blandin Foundation has conducted in the communities in which we work:

  • almost 70 percent of non-adopters report being 65 years of age or older;
  • 91 percent of them live in a household of 2 or fewer people;
  • 94 percent report having no school-age children living in their household; and
  • 46 percent report a household income under $25,000.

This is the population of non-adopters, and elders dominate here.

Interestingly, the primary reason why people reported that they did not have a computer in their home was simply that they did not need one (43.4%).

Approximately 10 percent elaborated, saying that they did not know how to use a computer; 8 percent reported that computers were too expensive; 22 percent reported that they were too old for a computer; and 7 percent noted that they had access to a computer elsewhere.

Everett Rogers, in his 1962 book titled Diffusion of Innovations called those who were the last and most difficult holdouts to adopt a new technology “Laggards.”

The term is certainly not meant to be derogatory, but rather reflective of those who often choose to never adopt the technology, or would only adopt it with significant assistance or structural change.

Rogers suggests that “the point of reference for the laggard is the past.” Accordingly, “the resistance to innovations on the part of the laggard may be entirely rational from the laggards’ point of view as their resources are limited and so they must be relatively certain that a new idea will not fail before they can afford to adopt it.”

Clearly, the strategy of simply waiting for this group to adopt digital technology has many flaws. It’s going to take proactive efforts by all of us together to ensure broadband is available to all, and to help non-adopters – including seniors — see their self interest in embracing technology.

That said, it is a case that can be made and needs to be made if we are serious about the health of our democracy in general, and about helping, in particular, as many older Americans as possible continue to live independent, healthy, connected lives for as long as possible.

Complex challenges like this require systems approach.  No single intervention, no single program, can make a difference at the scale needed.

To ensure that Older (and poorer and less educated) Americans are not left behind on the wrong side of the digital divide, as a Society, and as Philanthropists, we need to work on both availability of the technology (access) and the ability to use the technology to improve quality of life (adoption).

Both of these strategies require aligned action sustained over time.

In my experience, our communities are often program rich and systems poor.  There can be lots of activity at the individual organizational or project or program level, but if the efforts are poorly aligned or executed in silos, the impact on systems often is negligible.

Foundations are uniquely positioned to play a key role in this work of helping communities name and claim their broadband-enabled future.  We have many assets at our disposal – not only our check books.

Besides financial resources – grants – foundations have a whole suite of unique resources to bring to the table of systems change; other forms of “capital” that can be applied to the challenges of both broadband access and adoption for all Americans – including Older Americans.

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
  • host 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

Here are just a couple of examples of how we at Blandin Foundation use our various tools to help communities ensure that a broadband-enriched future is available for all:

  • 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
  • We use our financial capital to fund projects that arise from community visioning and goal setting. Some examples of senior-focused work:
  • 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 community engagement processes with facilitation 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” into community systems of education, planning, governance, communication, health care delivery and access, and civic engagement.

As you work to marry the needs and gifts of Older Americans with the promise of a broadband-enabled future, I hope you will keep your eye on the big prize.

Around every circle you can draw a larger circle – vibrant Aging is a beautiful circle to focus on – but a vibrant America with equal opportunity for all is an even bigger and more beautiful circle.  With conscious intent, an eye on the goal of greater access and adoption for all, a commitment to aligned action, and by using the full range of the tools in your foundation tool box, you can make a positive difference for seniors, and for everyone.

I want to leave you with these thoughts:

  • Access to blazing speed broadband networks is key to vital Aging – 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 needs to care about this.
  • Community-based broadband literacy and market development efforts can and do work. It takes partnership and aligned action. Only in a “culture of use” environment can individual project interventions succeed and sustain. It’s worth the investment.

Thank you.

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