Toronto Star OPINION: Digital development is the most important funding need you’ve never heard of

Whether it’s businesses shifting operations online, employees working from home or children attending school virtually, COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of making sure all Canadians have high-quality internet access.

The pandemic has also highlighted critical shortfalls in our ability to manage this dramatic shift – particularly when it comes to funding for internet-related projects. Canada’s “digital development” is the most important philanthropic effort most people have never heard of, and it is facing major challenges.

While the Trudeau government just announced $1.75 billion to bring high-speed internet to Canada’s unconnected, much of Canada’s digital development happens through community groups – and it’s here where the funding challenge is greatest.

At the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, we manage the community investment program, which includes a $1.25 million annual granting program for digital development projects. It’s one of the few digitally focused funding programs in the country.

To understand why, we decided to look into issues in the digital development sector. We surveyed and interviewed more than 100 civil society organizations, Indigenous communities, researchers, and others in Canada.

We learned the needs are great, and that Canada must urgently develop a tradition of digital philanthropy if it is to weather COVID-19 and thrive after.

Our findings are presented in a first-of-its-kind report, titled “Unconnected: Funding Shortfalls, Policy Imbalances and How They Are Contributing to Canada’s Digital Underdevelopment.”

Respondents told us the most pressing problem is a lack of funding in Canada for internet-related projects, in terms of absolute dollars, as well as in the breadth and depth of sources. Most existing funding comes from government and is complicated and difficult to access.

The larger philanthropic community, which is active in sectors such as health and education, appears unaware of this problem. There is little visible participation by technology companies, private foundations and other funders. In the United States and Europe, such funding is comparatively vibrant.

Survey respondents told us that infrastructure projects and digital literacy are the highest priority areas for funding. Community leadership—in the form of groups and organizations that can effectively advocate for equity in Canadians’ digital capacity—was also flagged.

Funding for not-for-profits to engage in policy advocacy around how the internet is deployed and managed in Canada is virtually non-existent. This has created an imbalance that gives industry a huge advantage.

Collectively, these obstacles are contributing to digital under-development in Canada – the result of a funding environment that is at best ad hoc, piecemeal, unbalanced, unorganized and, most importantly, unconnected.

This needs to change.

Canada must develop a tradition of digital philanthropy – more organizations, foundations and companies must be made aware of these development problems, and need to help solve them.

Funders need to recognize that digital equity is essential to advancing economic development, racial justice, and other social good. Government, tech companies, and foundations must step up now to establish a new tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada.



Maureen James manages the community investment program at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

Source: Toronto Star


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