Innovators in Digital Inclusion: E2D

Benton Foundation

Monday, March 25, 2019

Digital Beat

Innovators in Digital Inclusion: E2D


   Angela Siefer

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.


Matthew Kopel

 

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 article, we examine E2D, also known as Eliminate the Digital Divide -- a nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina, that began with a focus on closing the homework gap.

 

Origin

In October 2012, then 12-year-old Franny Millen came home from school in Davidson, North Carolina, with questions for her parents about the problem commonly known as the homework gap. This conversation, that became known as “The Franny Narrative,” was the catalyst for Pat Millen, a former sports marketer, and his family to ask additional questions: What is the digital divide? How pervasive is it in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District and nearby areas? What is needed to solve it, or at least improve the situation?

The Millens approached the principal of their local school about the size of the problem. Even in the relatively-affluent community, 54 school families did not have computers at home. The Millens estimated it would take $300 to supply each family with a refurbished computer and broadband internet access. So they set a fundraising goal of $15,000 -- a reasonable target, they thought, in their area. But they were aiming for a long-term, sustainable solution. Conversations with local leaders, including the mayor, and Lowe’s Home Improvement, one of the area’s largest employers that is headquartered in the area, allowed the movement to scale up.

Lowe’s agreed to donate 500 laptop computers – annually. These machines, decommissioned corporate assets, would be wiped clean and donated instead of being sold to refurbishers. 

With this initial donation, Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D) was born. The first E2D Distribution Day (D-Day) was August 24, 2013 at Davidson Elementary School. Assisted by volunteers from Davidson College, E2D distributed laptops to families and provided some basic digital-literacy training.

E2D also struck a deal with the local municipal internet service provider, allowing families access to the internet for just $14/month.

Amazingly, on that initial D-Day, E2D eliminated the school’s digital divide. Volunteers took a picture that day, as they suspected that within weeks, the moment would be gone, and the divide would return. With the remaining 446 laptops from Lowe’s, E2D began conducting similar events at other schools in the district.

This success of the pilot event led to questions about scale. E2D officially incorporated on January 1, 2013, with Pat Millen volunteering full time at the start. But he would need to find someone who could assist with the formatting of hard drives moving forward. Al Sudduth, a retired Duke Energy engineer, joined the Millen family’s mission. Pat Millen brought 30-40 computers to Sudduth’s house in milk crates, where Sudduth had set up a makeshift staging area in the basement. The computers were made ready batch by batch, and the team continued this way until January 2015 when E2D secured its first warehouse space. E2D was able to bring on additional help, in the form of high school students from Millen’s children’s school. The students were given keys to the shop and began working.

E2D’s staff is a mix of volunteers, part-time and full-time administrative staff, lab supervisors, and technicians. The staff works flexible hours based on their needs and the availability of resources. They also have lab supervisors and technicians.

Mission

The mission of E2D is to ensure that all students have affordable access to essential at-home technology and digital literacy training to support academic success and prepare students for college, careers, and beyond.

Services

Table 1. E2D’s Digital Inclusion Activities



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

No

Providing Low-Cost Broadband

 

To identify the low-cost broadband opportunities available to its users across the Charlotte region, E2D started by reviewing the discount offers found on EveryoneOn.Org. Working with Digital Charlotte and other local partners, E2D started to build its knowledge of which deals are the best, which providers can be relied on, and how best to advise users.

E2D has endeavored particularly hard to serve the homeless or otherwise displaced youth in the region. For these students, E2D has distributed Sprint Hotspots, each of which have a limited amount of 4G connectivity. (After 5GB of data is used in one month, service is throttled down to 3G speeds.) These hotspots prove a crucial solution, as E2D is not billed for the service, and the hotspot can move with users as they move to different housing solutions.

Twice a month, E2D operates D-Days. On a typical D-Day, E2D brings 150 laptops to a high school after promoting the event at the school and its feeder schools for a month prior. A student and her family fill out paperwork, pay a $60 fee, and sit down with a volunteer to review internet options. Families get a computer, but must participate in one-to-one basic training, which includes taking parents to their school’s student portal to learn how to track their student’s academic progress.

Connecting Digital Literacy Training with Relevant Content and Services

Although E2D began by reinventing the digital literacy wheel, after Millen attended the first Net Inclusion conference in Kansas City back in 2016, E2D started to learn best practices from other organizations and lean on peers from across the country.  One-on-one training at the D-Day events often goes beyond getting to the student portal, touching on everything from how to use Google Translate to setting up online banking accounts, depending on the needs of the new user and the time available for instruction.

E2D also provides episodic training that is specific to certain populations. In 2015, E2D ran a Spanish-speaking academy on Saturdays for parents, hosting children separately while parents were able to receive training. E2D is initiating a new, much more expanded ESL digital literacy training program in 2019.

At a minimum, trainings include basic mouse skills, setting up an email account, and getting to the student portal. Once these skills are covered, families receive the chargers for their laptops.

To serve the homeless student population, E2D partners with Digital Charlotte, a Knight Foundation funded program at Queens University. Digital Charlotte conducts digital literacy training across the community and has hosted the homeless families at Queens University for a day-long training event, looking not just at digital literacy but financial literacy, college and career opportunities, and job resources. 

All client families are sent information about all Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance events and trainings.

 

Making Low-Cost Computers Available

E2D has, to date, provided about 8,500 laptops to families in the region. Laptops are the standard as students need the portability.  E2D is a licensed Microsoft refurbisher, which allows for discounted access to Windows and Office, which are typically installed on E2D-distributed computers.

In 2017, E2D took in about 4,000 computers from corporations, more than enough to meet the needs of the families that are receiving them. Millen finds, as a general rule, that 75% of corporate donations are usable, with 25% being either too old, broken, or just good for parts. The organization takes laptop donations from the public, but does more to engage people in the organization, as the labor to create reformatted machines is too much for the organization to take on by itself.

From the start, teaching the refurbishing trade has been a part of E2D’s model. Sudduth taught the first student employees to refurbish the machines, which usually arrive in one of four states:

  1. Machines that do not need much work to make ready;

  2. Machines that likely can be refurbished with some effort;

  3. Machines that either lack the processing speed to run software or otherwise beat up or damaged; and

  4. Inventory that arrives dead-on-arrival, and can only be scavenged for parts.

E2D provides warranties for the laptops against technical failure for up to six months.  Less than 4% of the refurbished machines need to be replaced in this time period. The warranty serves as a guaranteed connection to E2D. This connection, along with the connection to the school system, facilitates a relationship between E2D and its clients to continue past the initial laptop distribution.

Financial Model and Sustainability

 

E2D is buoyed, in large part, by their relationship with Lowe’s Home Improvement. Lowe’s annual donation of laptops allows E2D to focus on the people they serve rather than solely on where to find the physical resources to maintain the program.

While E2D has received several grants, it has also thrived on community-fundraising initiatives. For example, a lemonade stand project raised $3,000 in its first year, but in 2019 that same project raised $17,000, which was then matched by Google Fiber.

Paul Leonard, one of E2D’s Advisory Board members and a seasoned nonprofit professional, introduced the idea of charging the families a nominal amount to give them a stake in what they were being offered, similar to the model he observed at Habitat for Humanity. He helped to write E2D’s strategic plan and to develop a long-term vision for the organization.

While not a full-cost offset (representing less than half of overall revenue, according to Millen), families are asked to pay $60 to receive a computer. In order to participate, families must be eligible for the income and asset-tested Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Homeless participants are not asked to contribute.

Individual donations are sought throughout the year, with an annual push at year-end bringing checks from $100 to $10,000 from local residents.

Grassroots events (fundraisers at breweries, the lemonade stand project, frisbee golf tournaments, and others) are regularly produced independently by organizations on behalf of E2D. They yield revenue of varying, and welcome, amounts.

E2D remains conservative when projecting grant receipts, as such funding is difficult to count on year after year. Overall, E2D tries to stay lean, with student workers earning wages, but a good deal of time is donated or under-compensated in order to keep things moving in the right direction for the community and the clients being served.



Approximate Revenue Budget 2018

Source

Amount

Family Contributions:

$288,000

Grants:

$155,000.00

Private Donations:

$80,000

Fundraisers:

$55,000

Corporate Donations:

$40,000

Total:

$618,000.00

 

Lowe’s continues to give regularly, with a minimum commitment of 500 machines per year. But usually, the company provides many more -- in 2018, over 2,400 machines were donated. The two largest hospital groups in the area, Novant Health and Atrium Healthcare, also donate computers to E2D.

Millen is working to build more relationships with partners to expand the flow of computer donations, from law firms to banks. But he has found that the major hurdle in securing laptop donations is getting the opportunity to make his case: the benefit to the community is far more than the cost of getting rid of the machines. Sometimes, donors need to purchase the machines at the end of their lease for a small fee, but the resulting donation is far more valuable than that purchase cost.

Despite this hurdle, E2D continues to add more partners to its donor list and it is casting for bigger fish so it can grow its programs across the state.

Partners

In addition to E2D’s on-the-ground efforts to increase digital equity, Millen meets regularly with representatives of community-based organizations, schools, libraries, housing authorities, local governments, and internet service providers (ISPs), and the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged communities. These relationships increase awareness while also helping E2D’s fundraising efforts.

In addition to its direct relationships with Digital Charlotte, ISPs, local schools, and civic leaders, E2D is part of the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group that has come together with the goal of reducing the digital divide in the region from 19% to 9% by 2026.

E2D is also a member of the Alliance for Technology Refurbishing & Reuse, the national device refurbishers group sponsored by the National Cristina Foundation.

Organizational Strategy and Strategic Priorities

Currently, 90% of E2D clients are area students and their families. However, the other 10% is comprised of a mix of communities where E2D sees a need and where it might expand. For example, some machines are sold to the police department as part of its offender diversion program which gives defendants a way to avoid criminal convictions. Other laptops are set up at low-income housing community centers, like the 25 computers placed at the Charlotte Housing Authority’s Southside Homes.

The biggest initiative for E2D is the Re-Image CLT program. From the start, students were employed at E2D’s warehouse to help with every step of the refurbishing and management process. While this started in Davidson, E2D decided to expand its reach and the impact of the program by moving into Charlotte and working with low-income high school students. In January 2017, Millen set up a meeting with the principal of West Charlotte High School and proposed setting up a lab. On the spot, the principal offered E2D a trailer. Google Fiber heard about the project and, over the course of spring break, supported refurbishing the trailer workspaces from top to bottom, with lighting and floors. The lab opened in March 2017.

E2D hired 10 students of the 60 that applied; all of them hit the ground running. The students at West Charlotte process over 100 laptops per month.

E2D would go on to win the Blue Diamond Award for its contribution to the IT Workforce Development pool in the region.

The West Charlotte High School pilot led to E2D opening a lab at Garinger High School on the other side of town in October 2017. In April 2018, E2D opened a third lab at South Mecklenburg High School. E2D received 252 applications for the 10 available positions. Of 25 candidates interviewed, E2D hired 11 students to work in the lab.

Students’ starting wage is $10 per hour, but, after two months, that is increased to $15 per hour, more than double the $7.25 per hour minimum wage in North Carolina. The students are given one rule to work by: no drama (a mantra known by all, with consequences in order to keep the workspace productive).

Many of these students will go to college and come back on their breaks to work. Those who don’t go to college are often kept on and given additional opportunities to grow and lead. One student worker graduated in 2017, but passed on a full scholarship to college to stay at home to help with her mother and sister. She continued working with E2D and was offered a spot at Red Ventures’ Road to Hire program at the banquet for the Blue Diamond award.

Further growth of the Re-Image initiative will occur based on the ability to source more computers.

E2D is working to spread the Re-Image program to other communities throughout North Carolina – urban and rural, communities in which students need access to computers and the internet, as well as the skills training they need after finishing high school.

While Charlotte came in last in a recent ranking for upward mobility (and perhaps because of that), the region seems to be rallying around beacons of success like E2D. Millen believes this is because E2D focuses on its mission: get the machines, train kids to refurbish them, and distribute the laptops to the students in need so they can become a part of the educational and digital ecosystem.

Milestones

 

E2D’s momentum and hard-earned cachet in the region (and nationally) has resulted in partnerships with community foundations and corporations, a source of funding seen as out of reach at the start. These larger donations, such as one made by Spectrum, continue to build on E2D’s reputation of success, and provide the corporations a worthwhile civic investment opportunity.

Millen has presented to many groups, but in 2017, he presented to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce about donating machines. That two-day event translated into thousands of donated computers, and thousands of dollars in donations.

The State of North Carolina is setting up days for the refurbishers to get their message out to companies that might be able to donate machines. E2D will be the beneficiary in Charlotte, with their friends at the Kramden Institute servicing the event at Durham.

Articulating Success

 

By the end of the 2019-20 school year, E2D’s goal is for 100% of Charlotte Mecklenburg School District families to have a computer and internet access in their homes. E2D knows where the gaps are and plans to fill those gaps in the year ahead. This goal is within sight: the scale of growth depends on converting additional suppliers who have surplus laptops, such as the state government of North Carolina, into ongoing partners.

Beyond the growing numbers and scope of the organization, Millen measures success by witnessing the impact on students that are front of him every day.


Innovators in Digital Inclusion series


Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.

Matthew Kopel is Webmaster and Technologist at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. He also works supporting scholarly communications at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Email Matthew at [email protected]

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.


© Benton Foundation 2019. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.


For subscribe/unsubscribe info, please email headlinesATbentonDOTorg

Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
847-328-3049
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Foundation Benton Foundation Benton Foundation

Benton Foundation

PUBLIC INTEREST VOICES FOR THE DIGITAL AGE


By Angela Siefer.