The mission of Digital Inclusion is to lead, educate and train low and moderate income youth and young adults in multiple areas of information technology, and by doing so, create community access to affordable technology, technology support and possible information technology career pathways for those individuals. Digital Inclusion achieves this mission by doing the following:
1. Partnerships: Much of Digital Inclusion’s success is built on partnerships and long-lasting relationships. Our partners provide us with the resources needed to be successful and to sustain our efforts, while at the same time knowing that they are making a positive impact on local communities and people.
a. Digital Inclusion fosters and secures partnerships with post-secondary educational institutions like Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College. Our educational partners are targeted for their proximity to low-income communities, access to college students in the information technology fields, and that many of the students come from low to moderate-income families. Additionally, the educational partners must be open to providing space for a Digital Inclusion store on their campus.
b. Digital Inclusion business partnerships consist of for-profit, non-profit and government entities that use and dispose of technology. Our business partners donate technology to DI that can then be utilized for training and ultimately be provided to those most in need at affordable rates. This cycle of donate-train-refurbish-sell provides the funds needed to operate the organization.
2. Training: Training youth and young adults is at the core of Digital Inclusion. The original concept and programming was developed to increase the knowledge and technical skills of low-income and at-risk youth in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Training occurs in multiple ways:
a. The primary training programs that we provide are targeted toward low-income and at-risk youth and cover the information technology topics of computer hardware and software troubleshooting, security and software updates, networking, coding, and robotics. The training programs can be from 10 to 50 hours in length, and depending on the program, graduating youth receive a $150 in store credit to purchase a computer for their own use. The training programs are offered for free and for a fee, but even fee-based programs offer full and partial scholarships to low-income youth and young adults. Any revenue generated from fee-based classes are used to cover instructor costs, materials, space rental, and overall operations.
b. The secondary training that we provide is the strategic planning and day-to-day operation of a social enterprise – the Digital Inclusion stores. College students are hired as interns, both paid and unpaid, and come from multiple career disciplines (i.e. information technology, marketing, management, accounting, etc.) to collaborate and run the on-campus stores. This type of opportunity is vital and highly desired by the students and the educational partners. It provides “real world” application of theory and knowledge and allows the students to test these ideas and their skills in a safe but challenging environment. In addition to running the day-to-day operations, the students are also tasked with being the trainers for the training programs. This provides multiple benefits for both the students, the youth and young adults, such as connecting low-income youth to college students and building near peer relationships, college students engaged with local youth to make a community impact, and much more.
3. Sustainability: Digital Inclusion was developed to “train-refurbish-distribute” technology to low-income and disabled residents of Washtenaw County, Michigan. It was quickly realized that a more sustainable approach would be needed if DI were to continue - relying on grants alone would be too risky for long-term success and growth. That is why the donate-train-refurbish-sell model was adopted. Approaching sustainability with multiple methods of developing funding allows DI to have more consistent funding and stability. Our funds are generated in the following manner:
a. Refurbished technology sales are one of the major contributors to Digital Inclusion’s sustainability. With most of our technology being donated, we can generate significant funds, while still providing affordable technology to our communities. We conduct these sales through brick and mortar locations on campuses, our website, and online retailers. We have also become a Microsoft Registered Refurbisher, which allows us to provide free licensed software to non-profits, educational institutions, and low-income and disabled individuals.
b. Technology support and repairs is another avenue for generating funds. Individuals can bring their personal technology into the DI stores to be serviced and repaired. Students and youth can continue to test their skills and knowledge by solving the “real world” issues that are presented in these situations. In addition, we collaborate with organizations developing community computer labs, schools with difficult budget restrictions, and other possible ways in which we can utilize our affordable technology and our low-cost technical support to make a greater community impact.
c. Training youth and young adults present multiple possible methods for generating funding. DI has partnered with colleges to run summer camps, provided afterschool programs for middle and high school students, and hosts its own camps and programming. This has helped balance funding during slower times on the college campuses and increases the opportunity for offering additional free programming.
The opportunities for DI to be successful and able to impact those residents most in need of these types of products and services are significant. With approximately 63,170 (18%) of Washtenaw County adult residents without a computer in their home and 1.3 million statewide the demand is much greater than DI can provide, which means there is opportunities to expand and grow this program all over Michigan and potentially beyond. Putting a computer in every one of those homes would be very difficult, but DI can certainly ensure that non-profits, educational institutions, low-income, disabled and senior residents have access to affordable technology, all while reducing the “digital divide” for our youth and communities.
After several years of operating and testing different strategies, Digital Inclusion was able to create a sustainable model in 2011. Digital Inclusion was built on a strong social enterprise platform and has been recognized for its work and success over the years. This is a strong model for creating a non-profit that is not reliant on grant funds to make an impact, but instead invests heavily in making an organization that executes win, win, win relationships.