New York City

Opinion: How nonprofits have the power to close New York’s digital divide

The need to close the digital literacy gap that affects low-income New Yorkers, older adults and people of color is vital for the access of essential services and opportunities delivered by nonprofits.

Alan Levine

Some New Yorkers take internet access and digital literacy for granted. Connecting to a home Wi-Fi network and browsing the web can seem like second nature. But for many, it’s not second nature – or even possible. Indeed, according to a 2021 report from Lauren Moore, state assistant commissioner for libraries, about 22% of New Yorkers don’t have a desktop or laptop at home. Further, nearly 27% aren’t connected to broadband services.

The digital literacy gap most affects low-income New Yorkers, older adults and people of color – and the consequences are dire. A lack of internet access or skills in this day and age can cut people off from a number of other essential services and opportunities. It also prevents nonprofits from effectively delivering those services and achieving their goals. 

For example, at the start of the pandemic, many nonprofits struggled to get vital information about safety and support to residents who were largely offline. And even outside the pandemic, nonprofits can’t always get the word out about things like job training, food drives or other programs due to the digital divide. This leaves the already vulnerable even more at risk. It also means nonprofits may miss their benchmarks, which leads to a loss of funding and thus diminished programs for their communities. This is especially true in New York, where many human services nonprofits working with the city are held to performance-based contracts. 

The digital literacy gap’s negative effects are clear. So what can local nonprofits do to address these problems? First, local nonprofits should build this into their strategies – closing the digital divide should be part of your organization’s official mission. That might mean a goal of providing broadband access, or collecting and distributing refurbished laptops and routers. For inspiration and ideas from other nonprofits, explore this list of nonprofits from across the country that are striving to close the digital divide. 

Closing the gap requires more than a strong Wi-Fi signal, however. Nonprofits must also ensure their communities have the skills necessary to truly succeed online. Prioritize teaching digital “soft skills” to your community – that is, skills that can be applied across a wide range of digital scenarios. For example, rather than teach how to access a single website, hold a class on how to best use search engines like Google. And instead of teaching your community to avoid specific online scams, hold a course on how to evaluate whether a website is trustworthy or not. When your community can think critically about digital tools, they’ll be better equipped to engage with your services and thrive online. 

The above problems and solutions are relevant to nonprofits all over the country. But in New York and other major urban areas, there are other unique opportunities and challenges. One opportunity is the high concentration of service providers. A more robust network of nonprofits and government agencies allows for unique partnerships to bridge the digital divide. For example, a nonprofit health care organization in Brooklyn might partner with the Brooklyn Public Library to lead a class about accessing vaccine appointments online. 

Alternatively, one challenge is the sometimes misguided focus on advanced digital skills rather than general digital skills. Because cities like New York and San Francisco are home to flourishing tech scenes, some nonprofits focus on advanced skills like programming, which are different from digital literacy. To be clear, these advanced programs can be helpful and set people up for career success – but they’re not a replacement for a nuts and bolts digital literacy curriculum. Indeed, your nonprofit’s community may not want to land a job at a tech company –they just want to be able to email their health care provider. 

As your nonprofit plans for 2022 and beyond, ensure digital literacy is built into your strategy. Even if your organization’s mission seems unrelated to the internet – like health care or food security – it’s not possible to fully support your community if they don’t have baseline digital literacy.