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.