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Working Through the Community




Jan 26, 2001


Daniel Ben-Horin

We at CompuMentor have been reading avidly but remiss in posting, so please forgive this late longish one. We have responded separately re the Digital Peace Corps. This response comments on some previous points that have been raised.

A major part of our organizational learning over the past 14 years has to do with the diversification of the technology equation for the underserved. It was *so* neat and simple in 1987; nonprofits and poor people didn't have any technology and if they somehow had managed to find some, they needed help in the most basic applications. But so much has changed, and we are now looking at enormous diversity of audience and equal diversity of use and need...and this entire diversity is often, far too often, lumped under the rubric of "the digital divide."

Clearly, not every approach to creating technological equity has equal value. And just as clearly, resources are limited and choices must be made. But if the choice is made to do anything other than analyze the issue in its full complexity and then support complex, multi-layered interventions, progress will be uneven, and the weaker links in the chain will continue to be highly vulnerable.

I realize that I am preaching to the choir. This dialogue is clearly committed to a complex analysis and response. But 'out there'--in the world of funders and new converts to digital divide concerns--there is still a strong tendency toward silver bulletism. "The problem is so huge...dollars are so please come up with a 'killer app' that will bridge this divide without costing too much.' We hear this all the time and sometimes pretty damn explicitly from folks who should know better.

Of course, nonprofits like CompuMentor that are working on this issue deserve a share of the blame for this simplistic approach. We are so 'scarcity constrained' that we typically tout whatever we are up to as The Cure for What Ails. We are worried that if we don't oversell our particular solution, then some other organization that does oversell will get the modicum of available support. And this is all such a slippery slope because nonprofits that oversell can't deliver...funders that have invested in what they believe to be a macro solution are disappointed by tiny incremental gains...clients/end users get partially served and fully frustrated...and the vicious cycle is perpetuated.

In this context, we react very strongly and affirmatively to the comment from Bob Templin, "until there is a more direct and honest confrontation of the magnitude of the problem we may never see the kind of support and attention given to low-income communities that the challenge deserves," and also from Rey Ramsey, "efforts in the community must be comprehensive enough to be helpful yet focused enough to be doable and accepted. "

There is much else we resonate with in the dialogue. We believe that t.a. orgs that have developed capacity and demonstrated success should be supported and that this support should include some 'tough love' re scaling down claims and engaging in avowedly exploratory as well as collaborative activities. We strongly believe in asset mapping and agree it must be linked to immediate benefits in order not to be perceived as an abstract and largely irrelevant exercise. We appreciate the distinction between early adoptors and late, re the different forms of marketing and cost/benefit analysis needed for each (Randal Pickett's data was very germane). We are fascinated by Mario's account of Steve Buttress's Nebraska outreach, which seems simultaneously absolutely on point and at the same time the kind of work that is near impossible to get funded in the present 'quick fix' oriented environment (David Hunter's comments amplify this contradiction, in our view). We like Jonathan Peizer's m.o. viz concentrating on and creating successes with early adoptors, although we feel somewhat cautious about his admonition to "focus IT implementation resources on the people who want the project to succeed rather than on those who are skeptical or defensive about it at the outset." because we think these skeptical/defensive folks are often such key leaders in underserved communities that working around them is not only hard but arguably counterproductive and, even with scarce resources, it is better to have them in the tent expostulating out, than outside expostulating in. Of course, we strongly concur with Jonathan's emphasis on training training training. Carlos Manjarrez's point re community leaders' awareness of associated costs (greater awareness than most funders have!) is highly germane.

We note somewhat wryly Jonathan's comment: " the trick is to frame technology needs in the form of projects that foundations love to fund - mission related stuff. " This is precisely the bar that we and other TA orgs try to rise to in our fundraising, but the huge problem is that until there is a sea change in the philanthropic community in terms of the underlying issue Jonathan identifies--i.e. until they recognize that technology costs are not merely administrative expenses but are inextricably linked to the entire panoply of issues that we are discussing here--we will be playing catch-up by securing scarce dollars for incomplete projects that have been kluged into traditional 'mission related' formats that fail to address core issues. Yet it's true, as Jonathan notes, that in the here and now dollars must be mission-related, for the most part. Procrustes lives.

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