E-interview with Tessie Guillermo, President and CEO of ZeroDivide

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1. The Community Technology Foundation changed its name to ZeroDivide in early 2008. What prompted the name change, and what else has changed about the organization along with its name?

We were founded in 1998 by a collaboration of 10 coalitions representing underserved communities to impact the "digital divide" by promoting community technology. "Zerodivide" was a concept we always used to describe the aspirational goal of bridging the digital divide while understanding its relationship to the socioeconomic and cultural divides existing in low-income, minority and undeserved communities. As we gained more practical knowledge about the common determinants for increasing technology access and addressing civic engagement, social services and economic self-sufficiency, the need to change our name to call out this interconnection became pretty self evident. The bigger changes however have been in our strategy.

In 2007, we changed our funding model from project-based grantmaking to a more explicit outcomes based approach, which relies on investments in what we've termed community enterprises. It's a take-off on the emerging social enterprise investment strategy, but focuses on building assets and increasing civic engagement in local communities.

We seed nonprofit ventures that use mobile, social media or community wireless technology as a core component of a social enterprise. From this pipeline, we select a few enterprises and make a more substantial, multi-year investment in each. We call this portfolio of investments our Big Bets. The value-add in our investment strategy is an essential component: the development of a comprehensive 360 support system which goes beyond the check, and helps these organizations build an ecosystem and gain access to the resources they need to make their venture successful—from legal, financial, business development and distribution help, to later stage funders for growing and scaling their enterprise.

The name "ZeroDivide" better reflects this mission. Plus, it makes a better Google search.

2. How is the digital divide in the United States different today than it was when the organization started 10 years ago?

When we were established, we were concerned with improving basic access to technology, primarily through funding computer technology centers, funding websites and building technology infrastructure for non-profits serving the disadvantaged. In the early part of this decade, we realized that content drove access and use, and shifted grantmaking to build skills in content creation and distribution by fostering interactive website development and digital media applications. In fact, we were one of the first grantmakers in the digital storytelling area. Now, its clear the internet and the social web is driving the development of networks between and among communities of interest. An ever increasing proportion of the population gets its information, communicates, and participates in social and economic progress digitally and so we're focused on those segments of underserved communities that continue to have problems with access to technology. Digital inclusion remains an important aspect of the divide.

The good news is that the there are more possibilities to use technology for social good than ever before. For example, we know about effective after-school programs that teach technology skills to urban youth. Programs such as Change Agent Productions in Long Beach teach technology skills in a project based learning mode which enhances the educational process and which has in their case, lead to lower drop-out rates and increased opportunities for jobs and higher learning.. What makes Change Agent Productions special is that they've established a digital media production company with a business model that employs their trained youth as professional digital artists and developers, with clients in the local business community.

The other good news is that you can achieve much more with less, so that community-based organizations can use technology in ways that were never before possible. Reach LA is a grass roots, community based organization which has recently developed an enterprise capitalizing on their social marketing expertise with HIV/AIDS outreach, education and mobilization. They have also developed in house an e-commerce site which distributes a branded line of apparel tied to a highly successful youth leadership movement.

The challenge is in leveraging philanthropic dollars to grow and replicate successful engagement models such as these. That's why we are so laser-focused on organizations that integrate both technology innovation and sustainability models into their core operations.

3. What are some examples of projects that are successfully using Web 2.0 to benefit low income and underserved communities?

In addition to the examples described above, two organizations in our portfolio have their roots in traditional media and both are using Web 2.0 technologies to benefit young people their communities.

Youth Radio in Oakland started as a broadcast radio station. Today, Youth Radio streams live 24X7 on iTunes and youthradio.org. Through broadcast segments over NPR, Youth Radio has a listenership that spans the globe and numbers in the millions. Youth Radio operates bureaus in DC and Atlanta and used Skype technology to create award-winning interviews with young soldiers in Iraq.

YO! Youth Outlook in San Francisco is also an award-winning literary media organization, but has its root in print media. Today, YO! has an integrated print, broadcast, and web strategy that includes a national distribution of 25,000 print magazines, a local access monthly TV show (YO!TV), and a web presence that features blogs, videos and user-generated content. YO! uses text message surveys to poll young people on topics that relate to the organization's social justice goals. Through its online and mobile presence, YO! has a much larger footprint than it would otherwise.

Both Youth Radio and Youth Outlook are using sites like MySpace and Facebook to create communities among listeners and increase awareness of social justice issues related to their communities. Both also integrate "traditional" journalism teaching with teaching participants how to use new technology.

And -- like every other news service -- both are exploring new revenue models including new forms of advertising, underwriting, syndicating content and media production services, while maintaining journalistic autonomy and integrity.

4. How do you think the social web is affecting, and will affect philanthropy? Do you think the changes are positive or negative?

Absolutely without a doubt, the social web is good for philanthropy. I think philanthropy is just waking up to the impact and opportunities related to social networking technologies, and because of the growing use of mobile and wifi applications, this impact extends beyond the desktop and lends itself to a more "pedestrian" focus.

Because social media tools democratize information access, philanthropic organizations will have to become more responsive and focused in their activities. Foundations need to learn to harness the power of technology and the social web because their aspirations for social change require engaging social change agents often immersed in the use of these tools. The ultimate effectiveness of such tools can be hindered or enhanced based on how well philanthropy itself embraces them.

5. What would a world where ZeroDivide had achieved its mission look like?

I often talk with our staff about wanting to change the world as part of our mission. The reality is that what we can and should be focused on is changing the part of the world that makes sense for us to do. And that is primarily focusing on transforming the communities we care about and the institutions (physical and virtual) that serve them. Here's the vision:

These institutions are entrepreneurial and aren't afraid to try new ways of attacking a problem or issue, while keeping in mind the limitations and urgent concerns of their own clients and constituents. Together with them, community residents have gained a keen appreciation of the value of information and communications technology, particularly the new media forms, and have informed and appropriate strategies and methods for implementing those forms of technology to achieve great social outcomes; including the increase and improvement of community assets, built and networked together to employ in social change. While many will be and remain grass-roots oriented, they will gain maturity and sophistication in the efficacy of their methods of service and advocacy. They will have built up strong management and governance infrastructures that will prevail over the stresses and constraints of non-profit sector realities, while allowing for growth and incorporation of new, generative thinking and tactics. They will reflect the diversity of California and in fact the globe, in ethnicity, language, ability, geography and experience. They will be successful in the fields of education, health, economic development, youth development, senior care, immigration, civil rights, disability access and environmental justice. They will have a great desire and ability to partner with others in their field and beyond, to transform and change unhealthy social, economic and political conditions within their communities. They will have developed models of service, using technology, that are replicable, scaleable and self-sustaining.

6. I enjoyed your blog post from early 2008, What's On Your Nightstand? What's on your nightstand now?

Because it's summer, I've indulged in more fiction than usual. I just finished reading Raymond Khoury's The Sanctuary and read an oldie, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. Maybe my current interest in the Middle Ages is tied to having achieved my mid-life? Also I have a more tried and true business related book, Foundation and Endowment Investing by Lawrence Kochard and Cathleen Rittereiser. This book is a great learning exercise for those interested or involved in endowment governance. It's a timely survey of the investment strategies and histories of several of the largest endowments in the U.S. in the form of readable and interesting interviews of their highly successful CIOs.