Corporate Philanthropy Tackles the Digital Divide

HP’s $15 million, plus comprehensive community commitment and capacity building, provides us with a model of success for social change.

What would you do with $15 million if you were a tech company with a commitment to social justice? It boggles the mind just thinking about the possibilities. You can feel the rush of ideas flowing from your brain. You might announce: Google glasses for everyone, or self-driving cars. You might invest in renewable energy like solar or wind power. You might even develop tracking systems to help people respond to the devastation natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy leave behind.

Digital Village: bridging the digital divide

You might also invest it directly in people—in helping people help themselves. This is precisely what one tech company did. Hewlett-Packard (HP)—the tech giant characterized more recently by its CEO turnovers than its technological innovation—invested $15 million in local communities throughout the United States in an effort to help bridge the digital divide in communities of color. They called the initiative the Digital Village Project, and former HP Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina, former US President Bill Clinton, and human rights activist Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., helped launch it.

The project provided communities with cash, equipment, and technical assistance to help them accomplish their own goals. HP used empowerment evaluation—a self-help approach to monitoring and assessing performance—to keep participants on track, productive, and focused on outcomes. The results were astounding.

According to the former head of the FCC, the Tribal Digital Village (a group comprised of 19 tribes in San Diego) built one of the largest unlicensed wireless systems in the country, as well as a digital printing press company. Groups in East Palo Alto and Baltimore distributed laptops to teachers and students, and accompanied them with requisite training needed to transform school district curriculum.

Basically, the initiative helped these communities build their own technologically oriented businesses, improve their education systems, and improve their economic health.

Payoff: capacity building

The answer to the question: “What’s the payoff?” may sound obvious. Native Americans connected with my students at Stanford about their projects through videoconferencing. East Palo Alto residents were able to check on a Digital Village web portal for local news, educational opportunities, and employment prospects. East Palo Alto and Baltimore school districts were able to integrate the Internet into their curriculum.

However, these were not the pay-offs; they represent the byproducts or benefits associated with capacity building. People from all walks of life in each of the Digital Villages learned how to start, build, and manage their affairs. They were given an opportunity to occupy roles previously within their sights but outside their grasp. They became managers, entrepreneurs, business people, and educators. They learned by doing. The psychologist Vygotsky called this the proximal zone: A place just beyond a person’s reach and experience. It is a step beyond one’s comfort level. This is where real learning occurs. The payoff is powerful. This kind of learning can be generalized and applied throughout a lifetime, well beyond any specific project or program.

A country in crisis: a role for corporate philanthropy

We know we live in interesting times—as the purportedly famous Chinese curse goes. Too many homes are facing foreclosure or under water—both figuratively, as a result of our banking/housing debacle, or literally, as a result of national disasters. The fiscal cliff is looming. Government spending may suddenly come to a halt. Unemployment is high. We know that bipartisan steps, such as reviving the Civil Conservation Corp (a public works relief program designed during the Great Depression to put people back to work), are needed, but we have reason to be skeptical about bipartisanship even though the elections are behind us. We have become less certain about our future than we have been in decades.

However, there is a ray of hope. Corporate philanthropy has a major role to play in our future. Historically and philosophically, it has played a role in society of planting the seeds—both ideas and money. The Digital Village is a shining example of corporate philanthropy. The HP initiative focused on bridging the digital divide in communities of color: a laudable goal in itself. Marginalized communities took charge of their collective lives and produced real-world outcomes beyond anyone's expectations (even their own). However, the real story is not about technology, it is about partnership. Corporate philanthropy in concert with comprehensive community commitment and resolve provide us with a model of success. This model, in light of shrinking government funds, has a promising role to play in our future as we get back up and rebuild our national confidence, and revitalize our nation in the process.

Read excerpts from Empowerment Evaluation in the Digital Villages: Hewlett-Packard's $15 Million Race Toward Social Justice.

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  • BY Steven E. Mayer

    ON November 28, 2012 09:17 AM

    I find it hard to put corporate philanthropy and social justice into the same sentence.

    Some louts might even say that corporate philanthropy is an oxymoron, and that social injustice is caused by corporate practices run amok.

    After all, don’t so many of the thousands of documented disparities in the performance of our private markets and public systems – in their delivery of different outcomes for different groups in hiring and employment practices, salaries and benefits, and advancement opportunities, to say nothing of the harmful effects of manufacturing and marketing practices seen in neighboring communities, ecosystems, and labor markets – stem from the intensely short-term profit-driven motives of corporate executives and their shareholders?  These disparities are huge, persistent, and consistent across virtually all arenas of American life, from health to education, from economic development to criminal justice, and more. 

    If the role of corporate philanthropy is to do more than distract us from these realities of corporate practice, some serious revision of corporate work is needed, both in the name of philanthropy but even more in business practice-as-usual.  There must be some good examples, and perhaps HP’s Digital Villages Project is the “shining example” that your practice of empowerment evaluation reveals.  If so, I share your hope for the field, and nominate three possibilities for consideration.

    1. To better gauge the benefits of corporate philanthropy, there should be more widespread use of the principles of empowerment evaluation, in which intended beneficiaries of philanthropic gifts are included in evaluation planning and activities to better reflect their interests, knowledge, and ability to identify and analyze critical evidence.  Empowerment evaluation was apparently used to excellent effect to better understand the upsides and downsides of HP’s Digital Villages.

    2. To better shape corporate practice to be less harmful and more benign, there should be more widespread use of advisory panels to study avenues for reducing disparities and improve outcomes to people and communities in those arenas directly affected by corporate decision making.  Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy) used to have a Low-Income Advisory Task Force and used it to excellent effect in shaping or reviewing corporate policy.

    3. To incent corporate practice that stands to reduce harmful disparities, changes to corporate tax code (now, post-election, so open to scrutiny) should be considered.  A corporation that can demonstrate reduced disparities through changes to its practice in any of the arenas affected by its decision making should be penalized less, or rewarded more.  Financial institutions that can show changes in lending practices that are less predatory, for example, could be penalized less.  Manufacturing companies that can show changes in employment practices that make training more available could be rewarded. 

    For more, see my postings at or publications at

    Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.
    Consulting Evaluator
    Effective Communities Project  

  • BY David Fetterman

    ON November 28, 2012 11:13 AM

    Dr. Mayer

    Many thanks for posting your thoughts on the subject of corporate philanthropy.  I very much appreciate your insight into incentives.  I particularly valued your comment:

    “A corporation that can demonstrate reduced disparities through changes to its practice in any of the arenas affected by its decision making should be penalized less, or rewarded more.  Financial institutions that can show changes in lending practices that are less predatory, for example, could be penalized less.  Manufacturing companies that can show changes in employment practices that make training more available could be rewarded.”

    I think this is a topic that will re-emerge now that we post-elections.

    In addition, thanks for sharing your insight into what empowerment evaluation can do to help corporate philanthropists raise the bar.

    Best wishes.

    Dr. David Fetterman
    President & CEO, Fetterman & Associates
    (Stanford Alumnus and 25 Years of Experience at Stanford University)

  • Cindy Wong's avatar

    BY Cindy Wong

    ON November 30, 2012 06:49 AM

    Hello Dr. Fetterman,

    Thank you for bringing the empowerment evaluation to us and for your contributions to the fields of evaluation, education and development.

    It would fantastic to see more initiatives like Digital Villages that are specifically committed to a comprehensive community approach.

    On the other hand, I wonder how much we should rely on voluntary corporate responsibility efforts that would otherwise be the primary mandate of public sector efforts.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

    Cindy J Wong, PhD
    Policy Researcher & Evaluator

  • BY David Fetterman

    ON November 30, 2012 11:16 AM

    Dr. Wong,

    You raise an important point about who is fundamentally responsible for social change in society.

    The obvious answer, as I am sure you would agree, is all of us. 

    Government has a significant role.  However, it has limited prospects at the moment given shrinking dollars, the looming fiscal cliff, as well the prospect of, what Sergey Brin and many of us see as, continued divisive political partisanship. 

    Individual citizens, like us, continue to play an important role.  Our roles may range from personal financial contributions to service in food banks and shelters (particularly important right now during the holiday season).  We also serve as individual change agents, helping to organize community groups and organizations.

    Foundations (and corporate philanthropists), however, have had a unique role to play in society.  Historically they have been innovators (or facilitate innovators), planting a seed (or more recently make a venture capital-like investment) and watching (or helping) it grow, eventually on its own. 

    Foundation roles and investments have assumed many forms.  One form is referred to as outcome-oriented philanthropy.  This is where a donor has clearly defined goals, uses evidence-based strategies, and ideally works with grantees to monitor progress and assess their efforts. 

    A colleague of mine, Paul Brest, former president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (and former Dean of the Law School at Stanford), differentiates between types of outcome-oriented philanthropy - highlighting the role of supporting organizations and problem-solving philanthropy. 

    Foundations traditionally support individual organizations to solve societal problems.  Problem-solving philanthropy focuses on solving the problem rather than supporting individual nonprofits.

    Paul has an eloquent piece about outcome-oriented philanthropy in SSIR titled “A Decade of Outcome-Oriented Philanthropy” (Spring 20123).  It is online at:

    The HP Digital Village Initiative is a blend of these two approaches, investing in specific organizations and attempting to address larger social issues, such as the digital divide, by assembling a host of experts, policymakers, and practitioners. 

    The HP Digital Village Initiative is unique in many respects, however, because it turns some of the conventional wisdom on its head. It allowed community members to chart their own future, but not in a vacuum. They had specific digital and fiscal parameters.  Nevertheless, it was fundamentally community driven, designed to build capacity and what Bandura refers to as self-efficacy. In addition, the sponsors did not abdicate their responsibility.  They remained in the game, providing guidance, expertise, and support. 

    Unlike many initiatives, the HP Digital Village was accompanied by evaluation.  Specifically, it was driven by an Empowerment Evaluation engine, in which sponsors and grantees learned to monitor and assess their performance together; allowing for mid-course corrections as needed and increasing the probability of accomplishing specific goals and outcomes.

    [For additional detail about the empowerment evaluation approach see Empowerment Evaluation Principles in Practice (Fetterman and Wandersman, 2005).]

    The Initiative worked in part because it cultivated a sense of ownership about the project.  In addition, it was a practical, flexible (and community-based) blend of reinforcing approaches, instead of an orthodox, rigid adherence to doctrine (and exclusively top-down) approach to facilitating social change. 

    In essence, I agree with you that we can not solely rely on voluntary corporate responsibility efforts, including corporate philanthropic efforts.  It is a distributed or shared responsibility. However, in light of current conditions I think corporate philanthropy has a particularly significant role to play and represents one of our best options as we all help to revitalize a nation.

    Best wishes.

    Dr. David Fetterman
    President & CEO, Fetterman & Associates
    (Stanford Alumnus and 25 Years of Experience at Stanford University)

  • BY Laura Rizzardini

    ON December 8, 2012 08:23 AM

    We are indeed immersed in the information age; there’s little chance of return to simpler times.  I wouldn’t question the existence or the disadvantages of a digital divide, either.  Evaluation of the HP Digital Village supports the integrity of publicized intentions for empowerment rather than commercial propaganda.  I respect HP and Dr. Fetterman for this important initiative.

    Still, I have to question the ethnocentrism of the western world.  Of course, I include myself.  Despite arriving at adulthood before the advent of the web, I have wholeheartedly embraced digital technologies, the web, and social media.  It has become difficult to remember life without a laptop computer, a smartphone, and the web.  Time spent in reflection reminds me that such “progress” also involves loss.

    Given the revolutionary power of technology over culture and local economies, I would suggest that corporations have a greater responsibility than sharing it with disadvantaged peoples.  The consequences of their use should be considered before their introduction.  Potential consumers should have a greater voice in this process than choosing whether or not to purchase the latest model of smartphone.

  • BY David Fetterman

    ON December 9, 2012 05:03 PM

    Dear Laura Rizzardini,

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    There were a few points that resonated with me, given my experience with the initiative. 

    First, one of the many things I enjoyed about this project was the honest, self-critical nature of this initiative, including HP and the Digital Villages.

    I also have tremendous respect for the communities’ commitment to transparency, including sharing wrong turns and detours to help communities learn from our experience.

    Second, HP and the evaluation team were keenly aware of that fact that ethnocentric views can have a negative impact on program design, implementation, and evaluation.

    Therefore, HP went to great lengths to allow the Digital Villages to design and implement their own programs, within the cultural context of their communities and the larger initiative.

    Empowerment evaluation was selected to help guide the initiative and ensure accountability, because it was philosophically in alignment with the values of the initiative. 

    In addition, empowerment evaluation is influenced by an emic or insiders’ perspective of reality, respecting local views and community knowledge.  (An emic perspective is drawn from ethnography.  For additional information about this methodological approach see Fetterman, D.M. (2010). Ethnography: Step by Step.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.)  (See:;=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=1409454564226370143&hvpone;=&hvptwo;=&hvqmt=e&ref=pd_sl_9mul90c9nu_e)

    In general, respecting community knowledge and values and enabling communities to take charge of their own lives, helped to minimize the deleterious effects associated with an a priori assumptions about what’s best for a community or organization without first knowing something about their circumstances, goals, values, and/or organizational level of development.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about this large scale comprehensive community change initiative.

    Dr. David Fetterman
    President & CEO, Fetterman & Associates
    (Stanford Alumnus and 25 Years of Experience at Stanford University)

  • James E. Walker Jr.'s avatar

    BY James E. Walker Jr.

    ON December 13, 2012 01:36 PM

    What a great discussion.  Quite refreshing!

  • BY David Fetterman

    ON December 15, 2012 10:29 AM

    Thanks James.

    It has been an engaging exchange.  (Thanks also to all of the colleagues emailing as well.  That exchange has also been very informative as well.)

    Feel free to continue posting and emailing.  It is an important topic, particularly given the fiscal cliff right around the corner.

    Take care and happy holidays.

    Dr. David Fetterman
    President & CEO, Fetterman & Associates
    (Stanford Alumnus and 25 Years of Experience at Stanford University)

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