The Funding Divide: Examining The Lack Of Funding For Mobile Phone Strategies In The United States

Posted by EKStallings on May 07, 2012

Written by Katrin Verclas and Emily Stallings

Why, despite wide-spread use of mobile tech for social change around the world, has the U.S. social sector been so slow to adopt mobile technologies? What do funders need to understand to support grantees' efforts to harness the power of the mobile phone? What strategies can help service organizations realize the potential of mobiles? Since phones are ubiquitous for most demographics but particularly so for young people and communities of color who use phones more intensively, this is becoming a critical question for the social sector in the US.

Funding Mobile Strategies for Social Impact: The Future is Now from ZeroDivide examines these questions, asking how to increase grantmaking for projects that utilize mobile technology to target groups working for social equity.

The U.S. Mobile Landscape

The paper notes that the vast majority of American adults, 86%, own mobile phones, and 50% of these phones are smartphones with access to the Internet. More than other groups, minorities, youths, individuals from lower income brackets, and those with no college experience rely on a mobile phone for Internet access. Yet, serious barriers to full Internet participation persist. These include phone capabilities, costs, network speeds, and accessibility of mobile phones over Internet access on a computer.

Ways in Which U.S. Organizations Use Mobile 

The report, authored by Amy Gahran and Jeff Perlstein, outlines some ways in which organizations are using the various mobile channels. For instance, it highlights the work of Txt2Wrk and Text4Baby that both utilize SMS or text messaging as a channel for outreach, or Mobile Voices that utlitizes the phones' multi-media capabilities for story telling. 

The report unfortunately also highlights projects that are no longer active and clearly were a failure, such as Witness' Hub (featured at a recent Failfaire that we hosted). There is also no discussion about the actual effectiveness of some of the projects described and some notable examples of projects that might actually have an impact are not even mentioned. (We are thinking here of  Do Something's SMS channel, for instance.)

This diminishes the credibility of the report, especially in a section that is entitled "Making an Impact." More careful vetting of the case studies and example mobile uses in the report would have been useful here to make the point that, in fact, there is very little being done today in the US with mobile tech that is really having any impact at all. 

Keys to Success For Mobile Programs With Underserved Communities

Based on interviews with practitioners, the the authors suggest that there need to be a number of key factors in place to help organizations best harness the potential of mobile phones for social impact.  They include many factors that we have written about time and time again. These factors are really no different from those that have been identified for any successful use of technology in social change projects:  

  • Build powerful partnership; 
  • Prioritize publicity and outreach; 
  • Involve the target community;
  • Foster strong ties with technologists; 
  • Be realistic about the limitations of technology and access; and
  • Always include training.

Many of these issues are not necessarily related to funding, however; a point the report leaves woefully unaddressed. It would be our contention that a lof of the lack of expertise with fast-changing tech such as mobile is, in fact, a symptom of fundamental structural and management weaknesses in the US nonprofit sector, and especially so amongst organizations explicity focused on social change issues and marginalized communities. 

Ways Funders Can Support Mobile Strategies By And For Underserved Communities

The report states that funding mobile phone-based programs as a way to reach underserved group is clearly needed. Yet, the philanthropic sector's investment in such solutions continues to be modest. What are the barriers to investment?

Based on a 2011 survey of foundations, there are considerable obstacles to funding mobile-oriented solutions: Funders lack expertise or even familiarity with technology, there is a lack of clarity on funding strategies to foster grantees' use of tech for social change, there is little dedicated funding for grantees' media/tech work, and not enough attention and funding for intermediaries to assist foundations/nonprofits with tech strategies.

What comes next? How can funders overcome these barriers and best support grantees and communities in seizing opportunities? The author notes:

"The sweet spot for funders working with underserved communities lies in increasing the value people can generate from the types of mobile devices and access they already have. For now and the next few years, this means ensuring accessibility —designing projects for feature phone users— and emphasizing the strengthening of community capacity, knowledge, and strategy development."

The report suggests that support can come in a number of forms, not just as funding. Some of the ideas presented include: 

  • Foster learning
    • Support research on local mobile usage, ownership
    • Support nonprofits' learning
    • Promote funder education (i.e. professional development)
  • Supporting Grantees
    • Conduct a mobile assessment of grantees, fund mobile elements for existing projects
    • Fund a cohort of existing grantees to experiment and generate mobile projects
    • Develop a Tech Talent Bank
    • Subsidize bulk text messaging
  • Convening Key Stakeholders
    • Sponsor hackathons and "mobile challenges," encourage participatory design
    • Collaborate on matching funds
    • Convene potential partners from different sectors
  • Expanding the Audience
    • Provide translation and localization support for existing mobile offerings

Playing Catch-Up

The social sector in the United States already lags far behind international deployments of mobile technology for social impact, in no small part dues to funders inability to work within a fast-changing and technically sophisticated environment.

Funding Mobile Strategies for Social Impact: The Future is Now serves as an introduction to the obstacles to funding mobile phone-based strategies in the United States. While the report lacks depth and nuance, as well as a substantive discussion of the lack of impact of even existing projects in the US, it does provide a primer to key issues.  

We applaud some of the creative ways suggested in which funders can address their lack of innovation in this field (even if we believe that hackathons are overrated to produce shippable product).  

But nonprofits and funders alike are playing catch-up with technology, and they better get on it. 

Follow the link here to view ZeroDivide's list of resources to help funders and grantees seize the capabilities of mobile phone technology.

(Image by JR_Paris on Flickr)

The Funding Divide: Examining The Lack Of Funding For Mobile Phone Strategies In The United States data sheet 1327 Views
Countries: United States

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