May 4, 2016

Technology as a Strategic Asset

For the past year, we’ve been thinking a lot about how new technology is transforming organizations.

To date, the primary use of technology has been to increase the efficiency and productivity of their existing work. While productivity will always be important, technology is now also transforming how we work and how we engage with our constituents. Technology is now more than a supporting toolset. It has become a strategic asset that can help nonprofits accomplish their goals and fulfill their missions.

We have identified four models of the ways we apply technology that directly or indirectly result in transformation.

Enabling—Technology makes it possible for organizations to pursue strategies that would otherwise be too labor-intensive or not cost-effective. Examples of enabling technology include micro-strategies, such as micro-lending and micro-volunteering; and personal fundraising.

Substitution—Technology replaces existing non-digital approaches. Examples of this model include email webinars and video conferencing.

Disruption— Within this model, technology introduces new models that fundamentally change the dynamics of communication, content, relationships, and commerce. Crowdfunding; apps that displace email and phone communications; and the sharing economy, which displaces traditional providers are all based on a disruptive model.

Data Byproducts—This model, typified by the data generated as a byproduct of technology, represents an asset beyond its original purpose. Examples include Google search term analysis used to predict flu outbreaks; collective fitness band data used to target health initiatives and measure outcomes; and cell tower and GPS connections data generating real-time traffic congestion maps.

All of these models are in play, to one degree or another, in most nonprofits, and will, over time, have significant impacts on how nonprofits raise funds, design and implement programs, engage with donors and other constituents, and measure impact and success.


Intelligence and customization is a core asset for nonprofits, and part-and-parcel to the use of technology as a strategic asset. Intelligence is the engine that drives advanced applications like marketing automation. When organizations have a deeper understanding of their constituents, they’re able to engage them in more meaningful ways through personalization, targeted communication and content, and more direct involvement in organization initiatives. That in turn builds stronger relationships, leading to greater success in fundraising and other programs.

The building blocks of intelligence are data and analytics. Of particular importance are data on donor behavior, such as knowing which emails an individual donor reads and responds to, what website content she views, and whether she participates in advocacy and other programs. Many nonprofits already use data overlays such as political indicators and use of social media to enrich donor profiles. The emerging Internet of Things offers the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of donors and constituents, as well as to help refine and measure the outcomes of programs.

Data-driven systems such as marketing automation use donor demographics and behavior data to tailor content and messaging to help the organization engage donors. The next wave of analysis—predictive analytics—will go further, looking forward to predict behavior and understand the dynamics of the environments in which the nonprofit operates. This will enable organizations to refine program strategies to better achieve desired outcomes as well as engage donors in more meaningful ways.

A mark of successful organizations will be their commitment to rich data and analytics.

Third Party Applications

Nonprofits use a range of capabilities to engage with donors and constituents and to provide information and services. While donor management systems (DMS) may offer some of these capabilities, many nonprofits are turning to third party applications to augment those capabilities. Findings from the latest Lehman Reports™ Donor Management Study clearly show many nonprofits contracting with third party providers. In fact, with the exception of fundraising capabilities, these nonprofits are at least as likely to use a third party application for each of the other capabilities covered in the study as they are to use the capabilities resident within their DMS. Nearly 60% of nonprofits contract for email marketing capabilities; just 20% rely solely on the email capabilities found within their DMS. This extensive use of third party applications presents a challenge, since behavioral data reside largely within those applications.

For most nonprofits, the DMS is the primary database of donor information and is the hub for third party applications. These applications require donor information resident within the DMS, such as demographics and contact information. In turn, the donor record needs to update to reflect activity that takes place within the external application. For example, a third party email system accesses segmentation and email addresses in the DMS, then writes back information about the individual donor when they open the email and click on embedded links. The capability of the DMS to support full integration with third party applications is therefore a critical purchase decision factor. Based on our findings from our studies in the association market, most organizations probably have not integrated these applications with their DMS. In some cases, the DMS does not fully support these types of integration, or would require expensive customization services to do so. In others, the organization simply has not made the investment to develop the integrations.

Graph of the use of third party applications

Strategy Mindset

Our research also shows that a strategy mindset within organizations correlates with greater success. A greater focus on strategy and outcomes enable organizations to take full advantage of the expanded role of technology, and to remain flexible to embrace new approaches as they emerge. More than 60% of nonprofits that have a formal and written engagement strategy also experienced a year-over-year growth in fundraising. In contrast, only one-quarter of those who have no plans to develop an engagement strategy plan experienced increases.

Graph demonstrating the relationship between an engagement strategy and changes in fundraising

Today’s donor management systems are much more than simply a means to store donor information and provide basic fundraising and communications capabilities. They are the organization’s hub for specialized applications and the focal point for intelligence about donors and constituents.

To fulfill this role, your DMS needs to work well with other applications and support bi-directional data flows, interface with advanced analytics systems for needs beyond standard reporting capabilities, and be flexible enough to accommodate new models and applications as they emerge in the months and years ahead.

The Lehman Reports™ 2015-16 Donor Management Systems Use and Satisfaction Study is in its third year and is undertaken in collaboration with NTEN. The study gathered information from nearly 1,300 US-based nonprofits on questions such as: What are the most commonly used donor management systems? How often do nonprofits upgrade or change their DMS? How satisfied are they with their choices? You can download a summary of study findings in this free downloadable report

Tom Lehman
Tom Lehman is president and founder of Lehman Associates, LLC, a strategy and research firm located in Alexandria, VA. Lehman works with nonprofits on technology strategy and with technology providers on market and competitive intelligence. Since 2006, he has authored the Lehman Reports™ series of three annual industry studies on the use of and satisfaction with technology applications and services by associations and other nonprofits, including the annual Donor Management Systems study undertaken in collaboration with NTEN.
May 3, 2016

May NTEN Member Roundup

#iGiveLocal, accidental career paths, and an inspiring educator

The latest news, events, and good reads from NTEN Members.

  • The 24-hour Give Local America campaign kicks off today at 12:00 am ET. This national crowdfunding event run by Kimbia, empowers individuals to give back to their local communities by supporting the organizations they trust. GiveLocal’s grassroots effort connects local community partners, community foundations, businesses and donors to amplify the impact of every donation. Get involved by following the #iGiveLocal hashtag on social media and attending the post-event webinar.
  • Another great event coming up is NPower‘s Data Management Event, a day of free business and tech consulting with Citi on June 10. Register today for this free and unique opportunity to work individually with a team of business and tech experts from Citi assigned to consult with your organization on your most pressing challenges.
  • Have you had an accidental career path? Our own Amy Sample Ward‘s latest Fast Company article features interviews with NTEN Members: Tak Fuji; Jackie Mahendra, and Smita Vadakekalam about how they’ve successfully brought technology and social impact together in rewarding careers.
  • Digital marketing is full of lingo and luckily, Classy offers a glossary of digital marketing terms to help guide you.
  • Accessing adult learning programs can be a challenge in rural areas, but Digital Promise is using technology to reach students traditionally left out of the educational system.
  • While we’re talking inclusion, See3 is taking a stand on diversity, offering a number of articles and free webinars to help nonprofits and social good companies employ strategies for inclusiveness.
  • The second annual State of Connectivity Report on Global Internet Access, by Facebook, takes a close look at the current state of global internet connectivity, changes from 2014 to 2015, and what kind of insights we can gain from the data.
  • Speaking of data, Facebook is in the business of categorizing and filtering, so take advantage of their information! Janet Fouts explains how to use Facebook Audience Insights for better ad targeting.
  • We loved seeing longtime NTEN Member, Kathleen Malin, discuss women in leadership (and NTEN) on the Atrion blog.
  • With the first quarter of 2016 behind us, what digital strategies should nonprofit be focusing on for the remainder of the year? Care2 gives key answers from the 2016 Digital Outlook Report.
  • Many of you may remember George Weiner‘s 16NTC Ignite presentation, “The Pain and Poetry in Building a Platform“, that featured the inspiring story of Power Poetry. We were sad to learn that the founder, Roland Legiardi-Laura, a documentary filmmaker, poet, educator, and friend passed away last Wednesday. Our thoughts and loving wishes are with Roland’s family and friends. You can visit Roland’s memorial page, to see how his important work continues.

Got some news or a tech success story you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments or email us any news you have to share, and we may feature it in an upcoming Member News and on the blog.

Image credit: Flickr, Jon S

May 3, 2016

New Pricing For Online Education Programs

Back in March we announced a some big changes within the education programs here at NTEN. Some of the new offerings include the launching of a new Nonprofit Technology Professional Certificate, and in-depth trainings that work as part of The Certificate or as stand alone trainings. Additionally, we have refreshed the role our webinars play in the overall spectrum of offerings we have.

As a result, we are revamping our pricing model to reflect the new range of offerings, create better access to entry-level opportunities, and dedicate more time and resources to more in-depth and advanced online trainings.

New Pricing

The following prices reflect Members/Non-Members rates effective as of May 1, 2016.

  • Webinars: Free/$15
  • In-Depth Trainings: $125/$250
  • Certificate Core: $750/$1,500
  • *Prepaid Full Certificate: $1,000/$2,000

*The prepaid option includes the Certificate Core and five in-depth trainings, enough to qualify for The Certificate if completed within the required 12-month period.

New prices on upcoming webinars are effective immediately. We have a number of great webinars that will be posted in the next couple of weeks so be sure to check back and register!

Prices for the other offerings will be in place as we begin to launch them in the next couple of months as we complete the Pilot for the new Certificate Core. We’ll be sure to announce when these offerings are available.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us at

Ash Shepherd
Ash has been in love with the nonprofit sector for nearly two decades, where he has worked in the areas of conservation, environmental education, social work, youth program development, and technology consulting. He has been an active member of the NTEN Community, serving as a co-organizer of Portland’s 501 Tech Club, and completing a three-year term on the NTEN: Change Journal's Editorial Committee. Ash earned a B.S. from the University of Montana in Resource Management and a Masters in Environment and Development from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. He is a well respected public speaker and has developed numerous nonprofit resources including the Nonprofit Social Media Audit and co-authored the Social Media Road Map.
May 2, 2016

Nonprofit Tech Jobs Roundup

Looking for a new job or short-term gig? Here’s a peek at some of the latest new jobs and RFPs posted on NTEN’s Nonprofit Tech Job Board.


Request for Proposals (RFPs)

Digital Inclusion Fellowship positions are also open through May 13:

Atlanta, GA

Austin, TX

Charlotte, NC

Kansas City, KC / MO

Nashville, TN

Portland, OR

Provo, UT

Raleigh / Durham, NC

Salt Lake City, UT

San Antonio, TX

San Francisco, CA

Post your job or RFP or find a gig at Follow @ntenjobs for updates on new job alerts.

Megan Keane
Megan is a long-time San Francisco bay area resident with an extensive nonprofit background in community management, social media, and volunteer management. She's a problem solver and network builder passionate about connecting with people both on and offline. As NTEN's Membership Director, Megan supports the NTEN community, helping others connect, learn, and make the most of technology, and has spoken internationally on nonprofit technology. While she's not online, Megan can be found teaching or practicing yoga, hiking, or curling up with a good book. She's also a self-professed penguin nutcase, er, enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter: @penguinasana
April 29, 2016

Addressing Access So We Can Move Towards Inclusion

Diversity is not a new topic for the nonprofit sector. When it comes to the internet, diversity plays a complicated role. If we aren’t all online—creating content, creating tools, creating the internet itself—it shouldn’t be a surprise when the online world doesn’t reflect many of our experiences or communities, let alone offer services or tools that add value to many of our lives.

Bottom line: diversity is missing in our digital world; and one of our biggest hurdles is a misconception around access, which is the foundation of a concept called “digital equity.”

What does digital equity even mean? The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as a universal “daily access to the internet, at speeds, quality, and capacity necessary to accomplish common tasks, with digital skills necessary to fully participate online, and whenever possible on a personal device and home network.”

What Do We Mean By Access?

“Daily access.” I want to focus on that first. When it comes to digital inclusion efforts, access generally means connectivity and service. Unfortunately, it is often used to mean access points, like libraries or schools. This is where we start to distance ourselves from reaching equity. Yes, libraries, schools, and other public access points serve as incredibly valuable resources for those who otherwise would not have internet connectivity in their home or through a personal device, like a smartphone. And while these institutions are valuable, they do not provide the same connectivity as a home network or personal device. Internet service, coming through to a computer sitting on a desk inside of a library, does nothing to move thousands of community members online to apply for jobs, enroll in health care or other services, communicate with their family or friends, or stay on top of the news when the library is closed and those community members are available.

When we think about access, we need to consider instead if it is a realized resource. For example, the Multnomah County Library here in Portland, OR provided over 1 million public computing sessions (on their provided computers, this number does not reflect public wifi sessions used in libraries) last year. That is a way of understanding the realized resource—there were 1 million instances of community members coming into a branch and getting online using a library computer. This is great news and an important offering for the community! However, we can not point to this success and say that all of Portland is connected, or even that all of Portland’s community members had access to the internet. If their work schedules, travel constraints, and other time pressures do not allow them to visit a branch during operating hours to get online (that is even with the assumption that there is an available computer when they get there), it doesn’t become a realized resource.

Let’s Just Admit It

In order to start to work towards equity, we have to first admit that not everyone in our community is online. Then we can start to reach out to those who aren’t online with pathways to realizing the resources necessary for being on the other side of the digital divide: internet service, a device to go online with, and the skills and knowledge to engage.

We can then also identify other structural inequities—services, platforms, and processes that neither include nor welcome new communities. What are the digital services you use each day, either on your phone or computer? Do they feel like a perfect fit for you or your goals? For most of us, the answer is probably no. Someone like you may not have been part of the entire process identifying that concept, creating a prototype, testing it and improving it, releasing it to the market, and making investments to influence development all along the way. But if there is only a small number of privileged people designing and creating the technology surrounding and impacting much of our world, it will never reflect all of our goals, lifestyles, preferences, or modalities.

Lest you think this is a rant on the technology sector, let’s remember that nonprofit organizations fall into this cycle, too. Who isn’t online in your community to take your survey, register for your programs, benefit from your services, or give you feedback? How are you engaging a diversity of community members in your program design and evaluation? What does it mean to create an organization that reflects the needs and goals of the community it serves?

It starts with access. Who is not here? Now, those of us who are, it is our responsibility to build those bridges.

Photo credit: Artwork from OSU’s 4th Annual Diversity Leadership Symposium

Amy Sample Ward
Amy Sample Ward is NTEN's CEO. She is also a speaker and author focused on leveraging social technologies for social change. In 2013, Amy co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin. She previously co-authored Social by Social: a handbook in using new technologies for social impact. She has worked in and with advocacy organizations, private foundations, and community groups in the US, UK and around the world.
April 28, 2016

Things We Like (April 2016)

A monthly roundup of our favorite nonprofit tech resources and other goodies.

  1. Folks at See3 Communications are taking a stand for diversity.
  2. Portland area folks are taking a final Bowie v. Prince ride due to the stars’ deaths.
  3. Men v. women: folks at this company are exploring gender inequality in the tech industry workplace, starting with themselves.
  4. This “wage gap” alarm clock explores gender inequality in the workplace by ringing after 79% of the work day is done so women can go home.
  5. This octopus went home to the sea by escaping down a pipe to the ocean. Good job, Inky!
  6. This “working cats” program gives felines a job and a home.
  7. April Fools’ corner: The Washington County Sheriff’s office announced a Patrol Feline Unit and Powell’s Books marketed pre-colored coloring books.
  8. Here is a coloring book for the map-obsessed.
  9. And here is a website for the data-obsessed. Seriously, look at this visualization of public data.
  10. These scientists seriously need the public’s help looking at photos of adorable penguins.
  11. Take a look at these adorable baby animals who really, really love their vegetables. Hungry yet?
  12. Then you can take a look at IKEA’s meatball-cooking virtual reality kitchen.
  13. Virtually there, then denied. Award-winning Raed Saleh landed in the U.S. for his award, only to be turned back. How long will this be our reality?
  14. 100 years later, the reality continues of women being told to smile. Here are some responses to people who want Harriet Tubman to smile.
  15. At 100, Ida Keeling continues to run, a reigning national champion.
  16. No reigning women here: the latest emoji raises a big problem.
  17. Here’s the latest in what “XOXO” really means. Things to think about before signing your email.
  18. Here are 13 questions to ask before signing up to marry a geek.
Steph Routh
Steph is Content Manager at NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network. She has spent over a decade in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on organizational development, communications, fundraising, and program planning. Steph served as the first Executive Director of Oregon Walks for five years prior to joining NTEN. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities and finding equity at the many intersections of social justice work. And she feels lucky every day she is at NTEN, with a Community that does exactly that. Outside the NTEN office, Steph is the Mayor of Hopscotch Town, a consulting and small publishing firm that inspires and celebrates fun, lovable places for everyone. Steph is married to her bicycle and an aunt of two.
April 27, 2016

One Year Later: Reflections of the Digital Inclusion Fellowship Program

Several weeks ago, my lovely coworkers surprised me at our daily check-in meeting with a card and a chatty hamster to celebrate my one year anniversary at NTEN. I could barely believe that I’d joined the NTEN team a full year ago, but was even more shocked to realize that our Digital Inclusion Fellowship was about to turn a year old! Exactly one year ago, we were heads down, reviewing the dozens of Fellow applications that were coming in on a daily basis. With every incoming application, our excitement grew: it was clear that communities around the country saw the need for this work and believed in the potential of this program to generate fundamental change for digitally divided neighborhoods.

As we barreled down the path to launching this program last year, we had a multitude of goals, ideas, and plans to make the Digital Inclusion Fellowship a groundbreaking and truly transformational experience for Fellows, City Hosts, and their communities. We believed wholeheartedly in the potential of this program to generate tangible and measurable strides in closing the digital divide. And yet, we were also keenly aware that this was a pilot program, meaning that we’d have to be flexible, responsive, and willing to learn. We also knew that success could look very different than what we expected.

While we have learned many lessons along the road—a number of which have shaped year two of our program—I am proud to say that we’ve made more progress over the past ten months than we could have ever anticipated. Meeting our Fellows at Orientation in July of 2015 confirmed that this was going to be an incredible year. Fellows ranged in background from schoolteachers to political organizers, IT professionals to recent graduates. Our first cohort was an incredibly diverse, intelligent, hardworking, and passionate group that would no doubt make a huge impact on the digital divide.

Our Fellows wasted no time in getting to work: within the first few months of the program, a Digital Empowerment Lab was set up in Nashville, seniors started learning basic computer skills in Provo, and Univision hosted programs to promote computer proficiency programs in Austin. The digital inclusion projects sprouting from this program have turned out to be as diverse as the Fellows themselves. In Austin, Daniel Lucio is organizing walks, where volunteers, staff, and civic leaders go door to door to speak with residents about local resources available to them to get online. In Salt Lake City, Alonso Reyna Rivarola is working with community leaders and volunteers to improve access to and use of Powerschool to facilitate communication between parents and schools. And in Raleigh-Durham, Mike Byrd and James Butts have worked tirelessly to launch a Digital Inclusion Task Force to stimulate collaboration around digital inclusion initiatives in the Triangle.

While the numbers can’t possibly capture the nuances of the amazing projects spearheaded by the Fellows across the country, they can provide some insight to the success they’ve achieved. Last month, over 500 individuals participated in digital literacy programming offered by our City Hosts across the country. It was also an amazing month for awareness-building initiatives—outreach carried out by the Fellows reached over 550,000 people (including a powerful TV ad in Kansas City for digital literacy workshops). Over the last two months, City Hosts made available over 3,000 hours of computer lab and workstations to their communities, and more than 100 volunteers were trained on providing support to digital literacy programs.

This data is a great source of pride for everyone involved in making this program happen, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. The true stories of empowerment through digital inclusion are the ones happening in communities across the country, where one lesson, one door, one device at a time, the digital divide is narrowing. We are fortunate enough to have testimonies from all of our Fellows, sharing their visions, experiences, and voices. Want to hear the stories of what’s happening on the ground with our Digital Inclusion Fellowship? Read these guest articles from our Fellows about their work in their communities.

Leana Mayzlina
Leana Mayzlina is Digital Inclusion Campaign Manager of NTEN. She is passionate about embracing technology to achieve transformative social change. She believes that solutions to some of the world's biggest challenges can be found in grassroots communities from Chile to Kenya, and that technology is the megaphone for their voice and agency.
April 26, 2016

Community Corner: April 2016

News and resources from NTEN’s Nonprofit Tech Clubs (volunteer-led local groups of nonprofit professionals and techies who get together for regular in-person events),Communities of Practice (CoPs) (volunteer-organized affinity groups), and the myNTEN community forum (conversations about all things nonprofit tech).

It’s always a good day to talk about storytelling, as Tech4Good SW Florida show in the above picture!

Qualitative Data and You: Communities of Practice

How to Track Time: Nonprofit Tech Clubs

What Do You Do Before You Hit “Send?”: Community Forum

Bethany Lister
Bethany has been involved in some aspect of nonprofit nerdery for most of her career. Ask her about Portland’s fabulous NTEN Nonprofit Tech Club, PDXTech4Good, or the technology reuse and education nonprofit, Free Geek. She is all the time trying to be a better advocate for diversity and inclusiveness in tech. Her latest extracurricular adventures include: learning Spanish, knitting her first sweater, and dragon boating (not simultaneously). Bethany likes cats.
April 25, 2016

If You Can’t Touch, How Can You Use a Touchscreen?

While Don has no use of his hands due to a spinal cord injury, he can use a computer completely independently using a device called the Jouse, a mouth operated joystick that allows mouse cursor control, and clicking through sips and puffs. Through the use of technology, Don has become a professional accountant, owns a property management company, and is currently completing the practical experience requirements for a Professional Appraiser designation.

When Don wants to use his smartphone, however, he has no way of using it by himself. Don needs someone else’s hands to operate his device for him.

Despite all the advances in mobile touchscreen device technology, there is no portable solution for someone who wants to use the device, yet can’t use their hands.

An estimated 1,000,000 people in Canada and the United States have limited or no use of their arms—meaning they’re unable to use touchscreen devices that could provide access to helpful apps and services, and remove other access barriers. While solutions exist for desktop computers, they can cost up to $3,000 and do not work well on mobile devices.

A Prototype Solution

The LipSync deviceA portable mouth controlled input solution that can be mounted to a wheelchair has been developed by a Canadian nonprofit organization, the Neil Squire Society. Called the LipSync, it enables people with little or no hand movement to operate a touchscreen device. The LipSync is a mouth-operated joystick that allows a person to control a computer cursor with a minimum of head and neck movement. The electronics are housed in the ‘head’ of the device so there are no additional control boxes, making the LipSync a good candidate for portable, wheelchair-mounted applications. The mouthpiece is attached to a precision miniature joystick sensor that requires only a very slight pressure on the shaft in order to move a cursor up and down. The mouthpiece is hollow and allows a person to perform “taps and holds” by alternatively puffing or sipping into the tube.

Scaling the Solution

On April 12, 2016, the Neil Squire Society was awarded an $800,000 USD grant through the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities to take the current LipSync prototype and release it as an open source, affordable solution, which will allow anyone with difficulty using their hands to operate a mobile device.

Through their support, the Society is updating the LipSync to include a Bluetooth connection module and simplifying its design. The goal is to make the product simple enough that it can be produced using 3D printers and other maker tools, resulting in an access device that can be made for a few hundred dollars instead of thousands. The initiative builds on some of the concepts of the sharing economy in that it takes advantage of untapped resources of people with technical skills interested in volunteering. It pairs volunteers with the excess capacity of the maker spaces, allowing them to be creative in their implementations and informed by the unique needs to fit the device to various wheelchairs, beds, or other environments.

The updated design will be released by the end of Summer 2016. For those interested in receiving a LipSync, making a LipSync, or staying up to date on the project, you can visit the Neil Squire Society’s website.

Chad Leaman
Chad Leaman is the Director of Development for the Neil Squire Society. The Neil Squire Society offers technology, computer literacy and employment programming for people with physical disabilities. During his thirteen years at the Neil Squire Society, he has developed numerous programs that are available across Canada. Chad is also a volunteer organizer of NetSquared Vancouver (NTEN 501 club Vancouver), which holds free workshops and an annual conference for non-profits to better use technology to further their mission statement. He also serves as Vice-Chair for BC Technology for Learning Society, which refurbishes over 7,000 computers a year for schools, non-profits and other at-need populations in BC. He’s a father of young twins which is the source of much joy, sleeplessness, and scraped knees.
April 25, 2016

Making an Impact on Digital Inclusion and Literacy

Digital inclusion can mean different things to different people. But for BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital public library, it is simply about doing what is necessary to provide digital access and resources to those who need it most.

The library offers services and branch locations that ultimately benefit a large and diverse part of the San Antonio population in a variety of ways. There are residents with digital literacy barriers, residents that may have access to public broadband, but lack devices, and unfortunately, residents without a connection or access to technology of any kind.

A Social and Economic Necessity

As the private sector, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations steadily move toward providing their services in a digital format, the need for everyone to function in a digital environment becomes increasingly fundamental. Broadband access will eventually, if it is not already, equate as a social and economic necessity required to thrive in the 21st century; similar to housing or employment. At some point in the near future, there is a real possibility that paying for your utilities, registering for a driver’s license, and applying for employment may all be services that can only be completed online. Digital literacy will at this point no longer be considered optional. Some people will only implement technology and the knowledge required to operate it into their daily routines when they see it as highly relevant to their lives.

BiblioTech’s creator, Bexar County Judge, Nelson Wolff, recognized this dilemma and its impact early on. In September 2013, the nation’s first all-digital public library opened to the 1.7 million residents of the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. It was named “BiblioTech,” a play on the Spanish word for library (biblioteca). The library branches are located within areas of the county where a deep divide exists between those who have access to technology and those who simply do not.

Bexar County is very diverse and BiblioTech, as a concept rooted in technology, helps bridge the digital divide within our community and provides services for everyone no matter what their background or circumstances. – Bexar County Judge Nelson T. Wolff

Most public libraries can be considered hybrid facilities, offering a percentage of their content and services digitally. This is not a new concept, according to the American Library Association. In 2011, two thirds of U.S. public libraries offered e-books, up from 38 percent only two years before. In 2014, Library Journal reported 95 percent of libraries carry e-book titles.

What Is a Digital Library?

So what makes a digital library so different? One reason is that its entire library collection consists of only e-books; there is not one paper book available in circulation. This modern-day concept offers several advantages. There are no large buildings needed to house collections. BiblioTech’s largest branch occupies only 4,800 square feet, compared to the 240,000 square-foot, six-story San Antonio Public Library. Cost is another; the central public library was a $50 million endeavor, and that was in 1995. BiblioTech’s cost was $2.4 million. The space required for shelves, books and storage just was not needed, dropping its costs from a traditional library down considerably. Its annual operating budget is just $1.2 million, with most technology needing replacement after three to five years.

Full-time staff includes only a branch manager, an assistant branch manager, a librarian, an outreach coordinator and network architect, the administrator, as well as 19 part-time technical assistants. Saying this, a digital library is not a replacement of the city public library; it should instead be designed to assist those patrons looking for a different public library experience.

Coordination is key. This year, BiblioTech and the San Antonio Public Library are coordinating efforts for long-range plans to create a federated library system, meaning that each library maintains local independence and has its own operating board.

Partnerships Matter

We have established a strong presence throughout Bexar County’s 14 school districts, where they have integrated services into the school libraries. Bexar County is also home to three military bases, struggling under constrained federal budgets. Our partnership with Joint Base San Antonio (Fort Sam Houston, Randolph and Lackland Air force Bases), allows the library access to base residents through donated reading devices and on-site kiosks. Another partnership includes M.A.T.C.H (Mothers and Their Children), which began in 1984 to give incarcerated mothers more opportunities to interact with their children. We now provide incarcerated mothers with e-readers and tablets so that they can study parenting books and read to their children during visits.

Putting Out the Welcome Mat

Welcoming new library users is an important component of a successful program. Every new visitor to our digital library is welcomed and offered a personal tour. If the visitor is a county resident, they are offered a library card at the end of the tour and additional one-on-one time with staff until they become familiar with the available technology. Out-of-town visitors are offered a guest pass so they can utilize the software and see how everything works. Everyone is shown how to download eBooks to their own readers or smart device or onto one of readers that can be checked out from the library. The bilingual staff also offers individualized technology assistance to seniors and anyone with special needs. That includes visually impaired patrons who can use voiceover accessibility devices and wireless Braille display on how to use adaptive equipment at BiblioTech.

The ability to navigate the internet is quickly becoming a required skill. The internet is used to pay bills, apply for jobs, apply for college, and fill out federal funding applications. Not teaching this necessary skill to library patrons would be doing them a great disservice. Since our staff does not have to spend a majority of their work hours handling traditional books, their main focus is on engaging our patrons. The branches have a personal and relaxed atmosphere that organically has created a help system where patrons just raise their hands and the staff come to them to answer questions. This is definitely something you do not see in traditional public libraries. – Ashley Eklof, BiblioTech Head Librarian

Because a digital library is fundamentally a “virtual” library, it is also available to homebound individuals or those in rural areas that do not have library branches nearby. Therefore, instead of going to a traditional “brick and mortar” public library, the digital library comes to them at home. The rising expense of technology itself has caused a “digital divide” between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Because of BiblioTech, Bexar County residents who would otherwise not have access to computers, iPads, and e-readers now have free access to onsite and circulated technology.

Alicia Hays
Alicia Hays works for BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital public library, as an Administrative Supervisor. She also assists with the Hidalgo Foundation, a nonprofit which operates exclusively for the charitable, literary, historical, and educational purpose of Bexar County, Texas. Alicia is a published author, a history and archaeology buff, and lives in San Antonio with her husband and 10-year old son.