Health Conversion Foundations Leverage Matching Grants to Bring Broadband Infrastructure to Virginia Counties

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Health Conversion Foundations Leverage Matching Grants to Bring Broadband Infrastructure to Virginia Counties

Adrianne B. Furniss

The Virginia Funders Network (VFN) is a prominent membership organization with more than 100 philanthropic organizations from every corner of Virginia. VFN convened a small group of member foundations that were interested in or already supporting broadband initiatives. Based on input from this small group, VFN quickly came to understand the critical connection between affordable, reliable broadband access and VFN members achieving their missions. As a result, VFN ramped up its efforts to inform and engage its membership through webinars, a conference presentation, and coordination of meetings with state and national experts.

VFN served as a facilitator connecting place-based foundations with one of the state’s broadband authorities and the main broadband infrastructure program, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI).

Housed within the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), VATI distributes grants to public-private partnerships to extend broadband service to under-connected regions of the state. Applicants for VATI grants, which will provide up to 80 percent of project costs, must be submitted by a unit of government (e.g., towns, counties, economic development authorities, broadband authorities) with a private-sector provider as a co-applicant. That means that local governments need to find the remaining 20 percent of project costs, or what is referred to as the “match” or gap funding.

Three health conversion foundations in Virginia collaborated with Virginia counties and stepped up to the plate to help cover the match VATI requires—The Cameron Foundation, the Harvest Foundation, and the PATH Foundation.

The collaboration between these foundations and county governments served as leverage to pursue and acquire large infrastructure grants.

  • The Harvest Foundation ($1.4 million), Henry County ($1.4 million), and Henry County Public Schools ($1 million) provided the match to leverage funding from VATI. The foundation received an initial DHCD planning grant to map the assets of Henry County and its county seat, Martinsville, to determine broadband availability in the region. To get fiber to every part of the county, the Henry County Board of Supervisors partnered with RiverStreet Networks, Appalachian Power, a local planning district, and two other counties in the region. Grant funds will be used to supplement construction costs by RiverStreet to build a fiber-to-the-home and business network with almost 350 miles of fiber-optic cable, which will serve more than 3,000 locations.
  • The Cameron Foundation committed up to $1.15 million to Sussex ($500,000) and Dinwiddie ($650,000) counties to help meet their VATI match requirements. J. Todd Graham, president of The Cameron Foundation, noted that the pitch to foundation leadership was about leveraging the larger grants with these matching investments: “That’s how [The Cameron Foundation] viewed it,” he said. “This $1.15 million that we’re investing is a way to bring in over $25 million in federal, state, and private funds that otherwise might not have been directed here.”
  • The PATH Foundation committed $1 million and the chair of their board worked closely with the Fagus Foundation on a $3.5 million commitment toward the local match requirement. This project, part of an eight-county high-speed broadband project, involves multiple partners, roles, and funding sources. PATH and Fagus funding supports the work of the Rappahannock Broadband Authority, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, private internet provider All Points Broadband, and other partners to bring fiber service to unserved households.

Each foundation faced little pushback from its board for making broadband infrastructure grants. “It was amazing to me how intuitively our board got this and understood it,” said Jerry Kuthy, program officer at The Cameron Foundation. “We have an annual grants budget of approximately $5 million dollars—which is allocated across different funding programs—so making a $1.15 million award for a single initiative is a substantial move for us. And, by preparing our board through many conversations, they were ready to make the commitment.”

“It really wasn’t a difficult sell at all,” said DeWitt House, senior program officer with Harvest Foundation. “Everyone [on our board] understood the importance and the return on investment. The only questions I received were, ‘How quick can you make it happen?’”

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need for broadband access for distance education, telehealth, and community resiliency.

Graham said broadband is integral to many facets of The Cameron Foundation’s work. “Education was the entry point,” he stressed, pointing to early Cameron Foundation investments in Chromebooks and internet hotspots. “But that was just triage,” he said, identifying the foundation’s goal to be a part of longer-term solutions, which include supporting broadband infrastructure.

In addition to the financial assistance, these foundations were able to strengthen relationships with Virginia broadband leaders. “There’s a really good relationship with our state broadband agency that came out of this,” said Kuthy. “Because it’s uncommon for philanthropy to be this robustly involved in [state broadband efforts].”

With a strong relationship with Virginia broadband authorities now in place, The Cameron Foundation is looking to pilot affordability programs and work on broadband adoption efforts with nearby Virginia State University, an HBCU seeking to establish a digital navigator program.

Kuthy points to the helpful facilitator and connector role played by the Virginia Funders Network, as does Kate Keller, president of the Harvest Foundation. “During the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that we needed to address access to broadband in our community,” she said. “The Harvest Foundation did not have a history in this space but needed to get up to speed quickly. Through our partnership with VFN, we were able to learn from experts and other foundations, as well as share our learnings with funders across the state. VFN helped to prepare us so that we could help our community.”

Thank you to the following people who contributed to this article:

  • Patte Koval, Director of Member Networking & Learning, Virginia Funders Network
  • Jerry Kuthy, Program Office for Education & Workforce, Cameron Foundation, Virginia
  • DeWitt House, Senior Program Officer, Harvest Foundation, Virginia
  • Andy Johnston, Director of Programs, PATH Foundation, Virginia

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

More in this series

These articles and much more in Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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