Section 3: Starting and Building a Digital Inclusion Coalition

People learning internet skills at the Rockwood Library in Multnomah County

All digital inclusion coalitions begin from a unique starting point. The only common feature of emerging coalitions is frank, nonlinear conversation about how digital divides present uniquely in the community by a set of stakeholders who are working to address a range of societal challenges. These leaders use networks of connections to talk about how digital divides manifest in the community and to identify shared experiences for further exploration in a larger forum.

How your coalition forms will depend upon how leaders frame the benefits of digital inclusion to the assortment of community partners that they connect with during professional interactions or over a quick coffee meeting, for instance. Community events may already be in place where digital inclusion advocates can join existing conversations around social, economic or digital equity. The coalition may form in response to a publicized government or business investment in a disadvantaged area of the community, or you may form proactively to collect data about who is impacted the most by digital divides in your area.

No matter the coalition’s starting point, the development period can take many weeks of networking conversations between partners who, as needed, enter and exit the broader discussion of, “What does digital inclusion mean for our city?” and “How does digital inclusion serve my community interests?” A central group of contacts will emerge that may become the coalition steering or executive committee.

Starting a coalition requires commitment from people who are proven community leaders who also have the necessary time and community-standing to generate the conversations that will advance the coalition development. Understanding the community landscape, your leadership qualities and where to leverage opportunities for collaborative conversations about digital inclusion will make the partnership-building process more efficient. Here are a few topics to consider as you prepare to talk with community stakeholders.

Why Form a Digital Inclusion Coalition?

  • To present a unified community voice around digital inclusion
  • To raise awareness about digital inequities and the impact on your communities
  • To support digital inclusion providers through professional development, networking and information-sharing
  • To strengthen the impact of digital inclusion programs through service partnerships
  • To raise funding for digital inclusion programs
  • To build political support for public investment in digital inclusion programs
  • To develop a collective understanding about the need for digital inclusion among providers in specific areas of community development (i.e., health, education, workforce development, civic engagement)
The Learning Collaborative

“Starting something is easy, sustaining it is a completely different story…Someone on the executive committee had to remind me that we’ve been doing this for five years, and that’s amazing. Five years is not a small chunk of change…this thing could have easily collapsed in six months, but there was always a group of dedicated individuals at the conference table every single month wondering what we could do better and what we could offer to our communities.”
-Lorelei Gauthier, FIGHT

Tip: Be accurate in determining how much time you can commit to developing a coalition. Most digital inclusion coalitions require at least six months to a full year to develop a sustainable model of engagement. The convener(s) tasked with early coalition responsibilities are often doing so as a “volunteer,” but realistically these persons are bringing more than just passion to work. Volunteer conveners are often positioned within organizations where the work of the coalition is a natural extension of their day-to-day roles and supported by management through the allowance of time or company resources.

Potential Coalition Members

  • Libraries
  • Private technology companies
    • Devices
    • Software
    • IT services
  • Digital inclusion nonprofits
  • Neighborhood associations
  • Financial institutions
  • Public-housing authorities
  • Civil rights organizations
  • Higher education institutions
  • Health organizations
  • K-12 education
  • Media and arts organizations
  • Workforce development organizations
  • Faith-based organizations
  • Internet service providers (ISPs)
  • Community economic development organizations
  • Local government (i.e., city and county)
  • Funders

“Digital inclusion” is not yet a universally understood concept. When recruiting members for the coalition and/or steering group, be sure to look for organizations who are engaged in this work from associated frameworks, including groups who work in the areas of media justice, digital justice, digital civic engagement, STEM inclusion and municipal broadband. Unintentionally excluding a key constituency group can call into question the inclusiveness and validity of the coalition. Engage in exercises that force members to reflect on all areas of the community, such as actor or asset mapping.

From Digital Inclusion KC:

The Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion is an open, collaborative group of nonprofits, individuals, government entities and businesses focused on fostering internet access and digital readiness in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Membership in the coalition is open to any organization sharing our vision and mission and actively working towards digital equity and digital inclusion in Kansas City.

Benefits of membership include:
  • Updates on digital inclusion from other coalition members and our national network partners
  • Opportunities for collaborative project proposals and grants with other coalition members
  • Access to and input on resources the coalition prepares, creates and distributes
  • The ability to participate in coalition workgroups
  • An active voice in helping to drive the regional agenda around digital inclusion
Responsibilities of membership include:
  • Publicly committing your organization or institution to the mission and vision of the coalition
  • Appointing a designated representative of the organization to the coalition
  • Keeping the coalition members informed of program activities and projects of shared interest
  • Participating in the activity of the coalition by attending monthly meetings or quarterly forums, joining relevant workgroups and giving feedback as needed on coalition projects and activities
  • Sharing resources and being open to collaboration as appropriate

    How to Join:

    While there is no membership fee, we ask that senior leadership at member organizations sign a letter of commitment to the responsibilities outlined above.

  • Digital Inclusion KC

    The Main Reasons Members Attend Coalition Meetings

    • To support strategy implementation
    • To network with a rare group of stakeholders
    • To learn about what’s happening on the digital inclusion front
    • To hold joint events
    • To participate in work that also supports their organizational self-interests

    Tip: Coalition members from public offices and internet service providers have shown to be valuable additions to numerous digital inclusion coalitions. Nonetheless, the convener or steering group should first evaluate how their inclusion may impact the coalition’s purpose and implementation strategy. For instance, the coalition may face future challenges if the primary objective is to effect policy change that is not in agreement with the position of these groups.

    Early Coalition Gatherings

    A common strategy is to hold a summit early in the development of the digital inclusion coalition. The summit often centers on affirming a common understanding of digital inclusion while gathering potential members, supporters and advocates. By discussing barriers and solutions, attendees of the summit get to that common understanding. The common understanding is what leads the coalition to clearly define their purpose. Bonus– an early summit is also an opportunity to engage and educate community leaders.

    “They come to the meetings feeling like there’s real work to do. And their voice and their input in those discussions is valued.”
    -Julie Omelchuck, City of Portland

    Co-Creating Your Coalition's Purpose

    The purpose, mission and strategies of the coalition should not be limited to only the present-day availability of resources held by the group but should be implemented with these factors in mind. Any number of group brainstorming activities can be conducted during these early meetings to draw this information from the group.

    It is the role of the steering group to refine the findings into items that require future coalition discussion before the final language is determined. Note, these coalition-framing decisions should not be finalized if the coalition is not representative of the community or inclusive of key stakeholders. The successful implementation of future coalition activities and sustained member participation will depend heavily upon how unified members are to the strategic direction of the coalition.

    Common Coalition Roles

    These are commonly held roles within digital inclusion coalitions. Multiple roles may be held by one person.

    • Convener: Manages the pre-coalition tasks and recruits early members
    • Chairperson: Leads the steering group through strategic development phase
    • Facilitator: Directs coalition meetings to ensure that agenda items are addressed and member perspectives are captured
    • Coordinator: Administers day-to-day activities of the coalition, such as securing the meeting logistics, sharing information with members and responding to information inquiries
    • Committee Chairs: Leads a smaller group of coalition members through discussions or activities pertaining to a subset of the mission (e.g., fundraising, digital literacy training recommendations).

    • Reasons Why Members May Not Be Attending Coalition Meetings

      • Too many existing commitments
      • Don’t see a connection to their work
      • Inflexible meeting structure
      • Potential members don’t know about the coalition because of a lack of public presence
      • They don’t agree with the direction of the coalition