“But We’re Not the Broadband Foundation”: The critical role of philanthropy in increasing Internet access and use

Thursday, December 4, 2014 - 2:01 pm
Bernadine Joselyn


“As the Internet becomes a gateway to democratic participation, economic opportunity, and human expression, it is critical to the future of our country — and our philanthropic missions — to ensure that everyone has high-speed access to an open Internet.”
- Former Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas

For over 25 years Blandin Foundation has provided community leadership training across rural Minnesota.  One thing we’ve learned is that resilient, vibrant and sustainable communities are anchored in the quality and diversity of their connections.  

And by connections, I mean both human connections and the kinds of connections technology makes possible.  Communities need high touch and high tech.

The hard truth is that too many Americans – including too many rural Minnesotans – still don’t have computers or Internet access, most often because they can’t afford them. This puts them at a huge disadvantage.  Unconnected Americans miss out on access to online job banks and applications, to health care, to educational options and scholarship applications, and to news that affects them and their community.  

I hazard to guess that most of you reading this post (online!) can’t imagine going more than a few hours without Internet access.  And for good reason:  research shows that everything is better with broadband.

  • Broadband Helps Household Pocketbooks: The Internet Innovation Alliance reports that households with broadband save $8,674 annually simply by moving interactions online. 
  • Broadband Creates Jobs and Profits: According to Strategic Networks Group, 23.4% of all new jobs created in the economies they have studied are directly attributable to broadband; businesses that increased their utilization of broadband by 10% realize a 24% gain in revenue and a 7% reduction in costs.
  • Broadband Grows Economies: Connect Minnesota research (2013) shows that a 1% increase in broadband adoption could grow Minnesota’s economy by $517 million.
  • Broadband Strengthens Our Democracy: Beyond “just” money and jobs, today broadband has become a prerequisite to full participation in our nation’s social and political life. 

At Blandin Foundation, we have come to understand that Broadband access – and the skills to use it – are fundamental to everything we care about as a foundation. 

If you are persuaded , as we are, that social justice and economic prosperity require redressing our nation’s growing digital divide, know that other foundations are stepping on this path as well.    And, while there never will be a single roadmap, we can help point out some of the short-cuts.

Top 5 Lessons Learned

5.  Peers make great teachers.Peer-based learning formats that encourage local businesses to share practices, questions and experiments are a popular, low-cost, and easily sustainable tool to build a community’s technological savvy.

4. Engage tomorrow’s leaders today. Recognize and engage the talents of young people. This next generation of leaders brings energy and sustainability to any community initiative.

3.Broadband is not an end in itself. It is a means to the higher ends of increased economic vitality, equal opportunity and improved quality of life for all. Framing this work in these terms is likely to be more successful than by calling out the technical infrastructure itself.

2. Have patience. This work takes time. Look for and celebrate early and easy “wins” along the way, but think long-term and build capacity and energy for the long-haul.

1.  It all comes down to community leadership. Help local broadband champions get and use skills to frame issues, build and sustain relationships and mobilize people to build a community’s capacity to achieve its broadband goals.

About Blandin Foundation: Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural Minnesota communities by investing in community leaders and working with partners to expand opportunity for all residents. Located in Grand Rapids, Minn., it is one of only a handful of foundations in the U.S. focused exclusively on rural communities and the largest rural-based private foundation in Minnesota. Information on Blandin Foundation grant-making, leadership development programs and public policy initiatives: Information about Blandin Foundation broadband grants and programs:

Bernadine Joselyn is  Director, Public Policy & Engagement, at Blandin Foundation.

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Public Policy
Rural Philanthropy
Strengthening Communities