NDIA’s Senior Programs Manager Paolo Balboa led a plenary discussion at Net Inclusion 2024 around the Digital Equity Act and what steps to take to prepare for the grant process. 

Click here to access the slides from the presentation.

This year, the Digital Equity Act moves past the planning phase and into the grant-making phase to deliver programs and policies to communities on the ground. 

Local and regional governments, community-based organizations, community anchor institutions—anyone that serves the digital equity needs of communities at the local level could be eligible for funding to create programs in the form of Capacity and Competitive grants. 

In 2021, the federal government made the biggest ever investment in digital equity with $2.75 billion in the Digital Equity Act. Later this year, two grant programs will open up: folks will apply directly to their State or territory for the Capacity Grant program for $1.44 billion, and the Competitive Grant where folks will apply directly to NTIA for $1.25 billion.

Over the past year and half, states and territories have gone through a rigorous planning process to write digital equity plans. They’ve taken a page out of NDIA’s book to learn from their communities and create plans that address digital inequities and build strong digital inclusion ecosystems. 

Each state or territory will receive a specific amount of money to implement their digital equity plans. While you’ll be preparing for two very different processes for each type of grant, there are some common things you can do now to prepare for both of them. 

Planning Your Proposal 

As you develop your grant strategy and proposal, keep these things front of mind: 

  1. Be Data-Informed, and Start with Asset Mapping: As the Digital Equity Act transitions  from the planning phase into implementation, it is up to you now to connect with partner organizations locally and learn about existing programs. Your state’s asset inventory is a great place to start, but we’re recommending that you go a step further and do asset mapping and needs assessments locally, to get a more granular snapshot of your digital inclusion ecosystem as it currently exists. If you need help getting started with finding partners locally, we developed an asset mapping toolkit that includes survey and spreadsheet templates. We also have a searchable affiliate directory which you can use to expand your network locally.

  2. Use Your State Digital Equity Plan: Use your state or territory’s  plan as a guiding document, but don’t be afraid to color outside of the lines when designing your proposal. The programs you deliver should reflect the specific gaps and assets of your community, while being informed by your state or territory’s plan.As you read through your state or territory’s plan,  think about how the unique needs and characteristics of your community can be reflected in your project.
    • Remember that more than likely, you will have some local knowledge that the state may have missed in its survey. There are things we know about our community just by existing in it and knowing our neighbors. Use that knowledge to your advantage.
    • States and territories have also laid out implementation strategies in their plans. Your organizations and the projects that you develop will be the vehicle for that, so make sure that your proposals not only reference but deliver on what is described in the plan. 
  1. Build Partnerships & Define Roles: We can’t do this work alone. The key to success will be partners! There’s no doubt that you already have a decent idea of who does what, and what programs already exist around your hometown. But what about organizations that are doing the work but have never heard of the phrase digital equity? Considering how quickly this community has grown in the past few years, the digital equity tent still has a lot of room to expand.As you gather partners, you’ll want to think about how you can highlight the strengths from each partner organization, which is key to getting buy-in. For instance, who has space to host regular meetings? Who has direct service programs? Shining a light on these partner assets early on and giving clear direction will help you develop strong strategies in the short-term and give your programs a shot at long-term sustainability.
    • Consider community anchor institutions such as schools and libraries. These have broad networks and may also have datasets that provide additional insight into digital equity needs. 
    • As you work with partners, keep an eye on a few things to help your project scope come into clearer focus: barriers, who is already doing what, what programs already exist, and what the state has described in its plan. For instance, is there a certain population that faces significant barriers to gaining digital skills? Or is there a specific neighborhood where adoption rates are significantly lower despite having access? Build on your ecosystem’s strengths and don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to!

Clarify Partner Roles

Defining clear roles and responsibilities for folks you’re working with helps create buy-in. Think through questions like: who can host? Who sets the agenda? Who has the administrative capacity to oversee the project?

At NDIA, we’ve seen this over and over again that engaging your partners and giving them clear direction helps to get people to keep showing up. Instead of a monthly meeting where you kind of, sort of don’t know what just happened, each organization sees their critical role in the overall project.

  1. Use Measurable Outcomes: Make sure that your strategies have a plan to collect data and that your impact is measurable. Here are some examples of metrics that will help illustrate the good work that you’re doing (just remember to measure over a certain timeframe):
    • Number of devices distributed 
    • Number of Digital Navigator interactions (including repeat interactions)
    • Longer-term outcomes like how many program participants found jobs found as a result of your program

Being able to measure your success is important to understanding the impact you’re having and to improving service delivery. That’s good for your programs and those successes are something that NTIA and your state will want to see when they assess your project. 

Looking into the future, these same measures are also exciting to potential new partners and funders of your work beyond the Capacity and Competitive grants. 

The time to be thinking about measuring success is not when you’re finishing the work and submitting reports. It’s now, when you’re envisioning the work. 

Federal Grant Tips

  • Start gathering and organizing your 424 forms, which are standard for all federal grants now before the NOFO comes out. You can find a list of these forms on grants.gov, including documents such as a Work Plan and a budget so you can start the fun part of collecting project-specific materials sooner rather than later.
  • Extra pro-tip: get your Unique Entry ID (or UEI) from SAM.gov. Keep in mind that if your project involves sub-grants, the sub-awardees will also be responsible for setting up UEIs as well.

Communicating Internally

Start telling your colleagues about the Capacity and Competitive grants. If you’re reading this, then you are more than likely going to be on the team or the person in your workplace who is interacting with ongoing and future digital equity projects. Do yourself a favor and tell your colleagues about this so they’ll know what’s going if you go missing for a few days writing evaluations or attending important meetings. 

At the administrative level, get board approval. If you’re with local government, this might look different but essentially similar—a council resolution, budget approval, or something else.

Finally, tell your coworkers, your colleagues, your board, your community, and anyone else who will listen about the next big step that we’ll all be taking to close the digital divide. We’re in this together!

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