Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Connecting for Good

Broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist in too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explores successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

In this series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this sixth article, we examine Connecting for Good in Kansas City, Kansas. Connecting for Good works to bridge the digital divide by providing access, hardware, and digital literacy education opportunities to its community.

Origin

With a great amount of fanfare, Google picked Kansas City as its first Google Fiber city in July 2012. But the community’s commitment to full digital inclusion predates and runs much deeper than Google Fiber. Connecting for Good is one of Kansas City’s key digital inclusion partners.

Michael Liimatta and Rick Deane knew each other through different community activities when, in 2011, they brainstormed the idea of Connecting for Good and found in it a mission they could share. The first year of the organization was built on their sweat equity, and they quickly realized that funding would be required to sustain operations. Deane had been involved with the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance (KCNA), a (now-defunct) organization focused on community rehabilitation (outreach and cleanup projects) as well as housing and utility development in low-income pockets of the city.

After the Google Fiber announcement, observers feared an increased and pronounced digital divide would develop. To its credit, Google Fiber worked from the first day to deploy service in low-income areas, releasing what it thought to be a high-value program for low-income communities: Free high-speed internet access for seven years, but households were required to pay a $300 construction fee. Liimatta and Deane quickly saw this as an immitigable barrier to entry. After about a year, Google, too, realized that subscription rates in these areas lagged. This realization would later result in a community grant program and partnerships with grassroots, digital inclusion organizations that were on the ground level. While Google’s initial approach caused friction with Connecting for Good and other community stakeholders, the relationship between Connecting for Good and Google Fiber, which involves both coordination and financing, is now a very strong one.

In the Fall of 2012, Deane and Liimatta, having just adopted their initial strategic plan, were discussing what possible impact they could possibly have without funding. As the story goes, Liimatta got a call in the middle of a board meeting from Aaron Deacon, then the president of the Social Media Club of Kansas City. Deacon had just been approached by OneLouder, which had recently won a national competition. The prize was a $10,000 donation to its charity of choice. Social Media Club was not a 501c3 and was ineligible for the donation, but suggested to OneLouder that Connecting for Good would be an excellent recipient. So with $10,000 in unrestricted funding, Connecting for Good started to move forward.

Connecting for Good’s next breakthrough was winning a civic engagement grant from the Kauffman Foundation in 2014. The grant not only gave Connecting for Good $75,000 in operational funds, but credibility and cachet that the organization was able to spin into further growth.

Liimatta wanted Connecting for Good to be seen as an authority on digital inclusion. He designed the organization’s website to be a resource for those who wanted to learn more about the digital divide. The website, as well as a strong social media presence, helped brand the organization. Connecting for Good became a founding leader in the digital inclusion movement. News outlets knew to call the organization when reporting on digital inclusion issues. And, in 2015, Kauffman renewed its support with an additional $75,000 to fund staff capacity, professional development, and fundraising strategies.

In 2015, Liimatta was recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and chosen to lead its ConnectHome initiative (a public-private collaboration to narrow the digital divide for families with school-age children who live in HUD-assisted housing). Connecting for Good was then less active as it decided how to handle Liimatta’s departure. Tom Esselman had been a Hallmark executive for 22 years, and the head of the Hallmark Corporate foundation steered him to Connecting For Good. Esselman became director in January 2016, just as Google Fiber was beginning its commitment to ConnectHome. Then-HUD Secretary Julián Castro kicked off the Kansas City ConnectHome project just a few weeks after Esselman started. Esselman soon realized that Connecting for Good’s viability depended on cooperation with all players big and small, national and local, corporate and grassroots.

Mission

“Our mission is to enable organizations and individuals to use technology to connect with one another in order to have a positive impact on society and the environment.”

                                     -- Connecting for Good

Connecting for Good’s mission is aligned with Kansas City’s (Missouri) Digital Equity Strategic Plan adopted in March 2017:

  • Access to Affordable Broadband, Devices, and Digital Literacy Training

  • Internet use for Education

  • Internet Use to Promote Civic Responsibility

  • Internet Use to Promote Employment

  • Internet Use for Business and Job Creation

  • Collaboration to Promote Other Digital Equity Priorities

In addition to the city, Connecting for Good maintains a strong partnership with the  Kansas City Public Library; together they guide the steering committee of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion. The partnership has also helped Connecting for Good connect with national organizations and peers.

Services

Table 1. Connecting for Good’s Digital Inclusion Activities (Rhinesmith)
Providing low-cost broadband yes
Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services yes
Making low-cost computers available yes
Operating public access computing centers yes

 

Providing low-cost broadband

Connecting For Good’s first mesh network was built at the Rosedale Ridge housing complex. Deane and Liimatta secured equipment and volunteers, and proceeded to wire the entire housing complex using a point-to-point, wireless, mesh network. Once successful, Connecting For Good replicated this model at other public housing sites across the city. Connecting For Good saw its success as a positioning point: the grassroots David to the Goliath of Google Fiber. It gave Connecting for Good an underdog public profile, which brought quite a bit of public support.

Users see speeds on the public housing networks of approximately 10/3 mbps, which may increase in the future. Across the 14 public networks Connecting for Good has built, 1,500-2,000 devices are connected to the internet. Connecting For Good had hoped that the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program would help offset costs of expanding and improving the networks, but the difficulties in the development of the program’s support for broadband services have prevented any funds from materializing thus far.

Connecting For Good also offers internet access services as part of its suite of options for area nonprofits and charities.

 

Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services

Connecting For Good’s training operation grew year-over-year, going from six courses in 2015 to 53 course topics in fifteen locations in 2016.  The increase of courses came through breaking concepts into their component skills and tasks. Instead of just “basic digital literacy,” a participant might take a course in online banking, which might still include digital literacy fundamentals. Classes at their Linwood Area Computer Center have a direct focus on workforce skill development. Connecting For Good now breaks all of these courses out into three categories: Life Skills (which include basic digital literacy, financial management, and health and wellness); Education Skills (for both youth and adult learners); and Career Skills (providing technical certifications and facilitating internship opportunities).

Connecting For Good found that an empathetic, human-centric approach (which Esselman credits to ByteBack of Washington DC), meeting clients where they are, ensures a pathway to success. Participants can attend any of the various digital skills classes, get one-on-one assistance, and schedule “hands-on” demonstrations for new devices. Additional outreach, and Connecting For Good’s community learning center network (which includes churches, community centers, branch libraries, and other anchors) using Connecting For Good’s mobile computer lab, has steadily increased the organization’s exposure in the community. Since 2012, Connecting For Good’s mobile outreach has provided courses to over 10,000 participants at over 50 locations around the area.

 

Making low-cost computers available

Connecting for Good is a Microsoft-registered refurbisher, a qualification it feels gives the organization trust and cache. The program brings in used computers from across the community and makes them available for resale at a price as low as $50. Area nonprofits may also purchase computers and peripherals from Connecting for Good at discounted prices. Connecting for Good also provides general IT consulting.

 

Operating public access computing centers

Connecting for Good operates two public computing centers, each on one side of the Missouri-Kansas state line. The Linwood Area Computer Center in Kansas City, Missouri, offers open computers and courses, as well as an opportunity for students to bring their school-issued laptops to a safe place with a good internet connection.

The Northeast Wyandotte County Community Technology Center in Kansas City, Kansas, is the center of Connecting For Good’s refurbishing operation, and is the location for a good deal of the organization’s training sessions. The center was made possible by Connecting for Good’s strong relationship with the Kansas City Housing Authority (which owns and maintains the building). Right across the street sits the Juniper Gardens Apartments, a Kansas City (KS) Housing Authority community home and one of Connecting for Good’s mesh networks.

Connecting for Good’s mobile learning center is stocked with Google Chromebooks and laptops that it uses for outreach events and training with partners in the community. Whether a course at a local library or in a church basement, patrons and clients can be in familiar community spaces, and get the chance to bring a computer home. Completion of two courses makes participants eligible to purchase a refurbished computer.

Financial Model

Connecting for Good has yet to find a sustainable mix of funding and is still reliant on grant opportunities. Since the inception of the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund in 2012, Connecting for Good has received funds annually. Besides grants, program-based revenue (coming from the sale of computers, software, and services) brings in the second largest amount of funds, representing 15.81 percent of Connecting For Good’s total income.

Connecting for Good was contracted by the Kansas City Housing Authority to provide digital literacy training in the computer labs at housing authority properties. Volunteers and staff are sent at least weekly to these properties. Staffing for this and other programs is the largest cost-center for Connecting for Good, representing 62.87 percent of total expenses.

Figure 1: Revenue by Percentage

2016 Revenue Snapshot

Hardware Sales

$32,840.96

Software and Accessories Sales

$4,256.40

Service Plan Sales

$956.00

Computer Sales - Other

$10,137.92

Other Services

$17,956.56

Direct Public Grants

$314,695.99

Direct Public Support & Contributions

$16,418.69

Special Events

$15,815.50

Other

$5,362.85

Total Revenue

$418,440.87

Total Expenses

$357,865.95

 

Organizational Strategy

Capacity growth is a current priority for the organization, visible, in part, with the addition of two Americorps VISTA employees, partnerships with local agencies to support youth interns, and development of a robust volunteer program. Staff has grown from 6-7 when Esselman began to 14-15 as of this writing. Staff now includes 1) six full-time; 2) three part-time; and 3) six part-time or other staffers whose salaries are paid by outside funders.

Esselman was able to develop a close relationship with a regional Americorps affiliate, leading to the recruitment of two staffers: one dedicated to development, fundraising, and marketing; the other in charge of efforts to build and grow the volunteer organization. After six months of interviews, he found the ideal candidates. Through VISTA, Connecting for Goodwill will be able to continue to get candidates to help it continue to build capacity for several years to come.

Esselman knew of the AARP Foundation through his role at another nonprofit, Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which places low-income adults, age 55 and older, who need additional job skills in job assignments in exchange for skills training and development provided by the host organization. Through SCSEP, Connecting for Good hired two additional employees to manage public computer labs, including participating in the refurbishing processes for the organizations’ reuse and recycling program.

Milestones

Digital Inclusion Fund

Over $250,000 was donated by Google Fiber and other organizations to support groups working on digital inclusion. Connecting for Good was one of the first major recipients of funding. As Connecting for Good had positioned itself in opposition to Google Fiber early on, this investment was an interesting turn of events, allowing for even more growth and for more work to be done.

Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion

Liimatta and Deane were instrumental in the founding of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion - a city-wide coalition of organizations that included not just grassroots and public organizations (Kansas City Public Library, Literacy Kansas City, the YMCA, faith-based organizations, the Black Family Technology Awareness Association, et al), but Google Fiber, AT&T, and Comcast, as well. This coalition building acknowledged that no one or two entities could solve the problem -- it would take a network of stakeholders working together to make change.

Articulating Success

According to Esselman, Connecting for Good “wants to become a catalyst for linking digital inclusion work to sustainable workforce development.” This focus represents a pivot in what success looks like as the access picture changes in Kansas City. As its training program thrives, Connecting for Good is transitioning -- from focusing solely on technology access and social justice -- to also including skills development and economic impact. Esselman now defines success as becoming the go-to referral site for any low-income, urban-core resident seeking ways to improve their lives by learning and advancing their digital fluency. By addressing all points on the continuum, Connecting for Good fosters a digital inclusion ecosystem of services, and grows to meet different aspects of the same community's needs.

Esselman also realizes how crucial partnerships are to this ecosystem, and to the continued growth and success of Connecting for Good. Broad representation and cooperation with groups in the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, and beyond, will continue to build recognition of the issue, and of Connecting for Good as an experienced and tested leader worthy of support.

Strategic Priorities

Esselman sees Connecting For Good’s programming scope expanding beyond simple connection and device delivery. As noted above, in 2016, the organization expanded its offerings to include education and training programming balancing the ecosystem of provided services. The tools and access Connecting for Good has traditionally provided compliment middle-skill and 21st century life-skill courses. The focus of 2017 was capacity building, which will remain the key priority moving forward. Increased capacity will reinforce the programming and allow Connecting for Good to maintain a level of service that a thin crew cannot accomplish.

Conclusion

Kansas City is rich in digital inclusion actors, in part due to the vision and commitment of Connecting for Good. As these partners move into a new year working to address new challenges, their continued focus on grassroots problem-solving and collaboration makes them a model for others doing the good work of digital inclusion. As the Connecting for Good team and scope grow, and it continues to situate itself in an important ecosystem of providers and community stewards, the organization stands to have an even greater impact, and be a resource for any who wish to contribute to the enrichment of the Kansas City community.


Innovators in Digital Inclusion series


Matthew Kopel
Matthew Kopel

Matthew Kopel is Program Manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Matthew is a librarian and web literacy advocate. He has worked since 2014 on issues of digital inclusion and professional development at libraries across New York. Before that Matthew worked in academic publishing, and remains engaged with open access scholarly communications through his work as Managing Editor of the Journal of New Librarianship. In addition to his role managing the IMLS-funded Digital Inclusion Corps, Matthew handles a variety of other projects for NDIA, including a revamp of their web properties. Matthew is based in Ithaca, NY. Email Matthew at [email protected]