Funding Mobile Strategies for Social Impact: Newest Report in #FunderTech Series

Cover ImageIt’s difficult to overstate the opportunities for engagement and social impact via mobile strategies – 87% of the world’s population are now mobile phone users. Yet, the social sector in the United States has been noticeably lagging in mobile innovation by and for underserved communities.

“Funding Mobile” by Amy Gahran and Jeff Perlstein ramps up the conversation on how to support nonprofits in using mobile to move their mission. The focus is on initiatives by underserved communities in the U.S. — and how funders can strengthen the quantity and quality of support for this work.

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Context: The U.S. Mobile Landscape and the Digital Divide
How Communities are Making an Impact with Mobile Strategies
Keys to Success for Mobile Programs with Underserved Communities
Recommendations for Funders
Appendix: List of Resources

The future is mobile. Actually, the present is mobile too — of the 7 billion people worldwide, 5.9 billion are mobile phone users. That’s 87% of the world’s population.

Concurrent with massive investment by commercial interests, civil society and the social sector have made powerful use of mobile strategies to accelerate political change (the Middle East), bolster humanitarian relief efforts (Haiti), shift the terms of public debate (Occupy Wall Street), and much more.

Alongside these high profile examples, there are many thousands of lesser-known, community-driven initiatives from around the globe that have used the most basic cell phones to amplify social impact on issues of human rights, economic development, and health care delivery.

It’s difficult to overstate the opportunity for social impact via mobile. Yet, despite numerous studies by Pew and others documenting the high rate of mobile use by youth and communities of color in the United States — key populations for social equity grantmaking — the domestic social sector has been noticeably lagging in mobile projects by and for underserved communities.

ZeroDivide’s research in 2011 found a dramatic lack of philanthropic investment in mobile strategies for community change. Despite the many examples of outsized impact and the near-ubiquity of cell phones, most funders surveyed were unaware of mobile strategies and/or unclear about how to invest in them.

Practitioners and funders based in the U.S. can learn much from mobile initiatives in the developing world about how to use this technology to support underserved communities.

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ZeroDivide defines the digital divide as the gap between who does and does not have access to the Internet and digital communications tools, and the disparity in fluency in using these resources. In the U.S., the digital divide has traditionally been discussed in terms of computers — who does or does not have access to one at home with broadband Internet access.

As of May 2011, 40% of U.S. residents still did not have broadband Internet access at home. The most common reason cited was that broadband is too expensive. Research shows that communities underserved by communications technologies are often the same socio-demographic communities underserved by commercial and governmental institutions: the low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the disabled, immigrants, and others.

Now, the increased affordability and sophistication of mobile devices is allowing millions from these communities to heighten their participation in civic dialogue and commerce. More than 86% of adults in the U.S. own a mobile phone and more than 50% of these are smartphones that can browse the Internet.

It’s clear that mobile technology is providing powerful opportunities for engagement and enabling great disruption. Witness the April 2012 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

The rise of mobile is changing the story. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic Internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of Internet access.

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Despite the challenges, historically underserved communities are creatively and successfully using mobile devices to amplify social impact. In most cases, these strategies build on the devices’ multiple functionalities. Far more than just phones, today’s mobile devices are being used to send text messages, record and disseminate video and photos, access the internet, geolocate, and act as a computer.

Each mobile “channel” – or function – presents unique opportunities for changemakers:

Text/SMS Messaging

Text messaging — also known as SMS or simple message service — is the most popular activity by mobile phone users, other than voice calls. Available on practically all phones —feature phones as well as smartphones — SMS is used widely and creatively by underserved communities throughout the developing world. In the U.S., 72% of adult cell phone users send and receive text messages, and the rate is higher for teenagers.

Building on the success of trailblazing text-based services MedicMobile and SexINFO by ISIS, a number of innovative projects have launched in the last two years, including:

Txt2Wrk helps connect disadvantaged jobseekers with timely employment opportunities via text messaging, augmented by a voice-to-text functionality that expands accessibility to those with low literacy. The project emerged from a participatory design process at an Oakland hackathon in which a formerly incarcerated participant described the challenges of job search for those with limited resources, no home computer or broadband connection. The design team continues to adapt the platform so it can be used by a broad array of social service organizations who would like to use voice broadcasting and SMS alerts to communicate with their clients.

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As part of this research we interviewed personnel from 10 mobile programs that work with underserved communities in order to identify key learnings and recommendations. Every single practitioner noted the importance of a strategic outreach/marketing plan and a wide range of partnerships, cemented by strong face-to-face relationships.

Below are the main keys to success cited by our experts, followed by a deeper focus on two of them:

Build powerful partnerships: A wide range of partnerships are vital for building community trust and awareness, as well as strengthening implementation and distribution. Voxiva, which runs Text4Baby and other U.S. mobile health programs, has made the generation of strategic partnerships a primary component of program development—working with sponsors, community-based nonprofits, insurance companies, government agencies, and others.

Prioritize publicity and outreach:
Mobile projects work best when combined with outreach efforts through other media and communications, events, and personal interactions. Successful tools for creating awareness range from billboard and magazine advertising, to fliers handed out by caseworkers, to news coverage, live events, educational programs at community venues, etc.

Involve the community: A key best practice to address cultural relevancy is to engage community members in the design of a mobile project from the earliest stages—a process known as “participatory design.” This process was the hallmark of VozMob: “Instead of having a bunch of smart technologists build something and then try to convince people to use it, the community members were involved from the earliest stages. We identified community needs, strengths, and opportunity areas. When you do this, people feel ownership of the project. They’ll help spread it person-to-person throughout the community.”

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Many sound arguments now exist for funders to support underserved communities’ use of mobile technology to surmount the digital divide and amplify their social impact.

Yet, the philanthropic sector’s investment in mobile strategies continues to be modest, despite hundreds of examples demonstrating the potential for grantees to dramatically leverage their efforts with tools that are nearly ubiquitous.

What then are the barriers to investment, and how can the sector overcome them to support grantees in seizing the significant opportunities?

ZeroDivide’s 2011 survey of how U.S.-based foundations were supporting their grantees in using technology for programmatic impact identified several key obstacles to funding that are relevant to mobile. The funders – varying in size, programmatic emphasis and geographic reach – highlighted the following issues:

Lack of familiarity and expertise with technology among foundations’ decision-makers
Lack of clarity on funding strategies to foster grantees’ use of tech for social impact
Competing funding priorities — little dedicated funding for grantees’ media/tech work
Lack of clarity on intermediaries to assist foundations, nonprofits with tech strategies
Because the digital divide and technology innovation will continue to be moving targets – fluctuating with social, economic and political developments — crafting funding strategies that address these unpredictable cycles can certainly be a challenge for funders.

However, there are a number of foundations that have engaged early in this space, including community foundations, that have surfaced valuable best practices derived from their experiences.

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Tags: mobile, mHealth, advocacy, texting, smartphones, PEW, funders, foundations, #fundertech