Scot Henley Of Digitunity On The Digital Divide and Why & How We Should Close It

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
12 min readJun 27, 2023

Nonprofits need support so they can effectively solve problems.

Digital inequality reinforces existing social disparities, demanding considerable efforts to acknowledge and address this pressing issue. In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, policymakers, think tanks and experts on this topic to share their insights and stories about “How Companies and Policymakers Are Taking Action and Can Further Contribute to Closing the Digital Divide.” As part of this series, I had the pleasure to interview Scot Henley, Executive Director of Digitunity.

Scot Henley has served as Digitunity’s executive director since June 2019. Over his tenure, he has led the organization through a transformation from private foundation to public charity, a sharpening of its focus, and an expansion of its staff, Board of Directors, and programmatic work. Scot is driven to ensure Digitunity continues to be more and more effective in achieving its important mission of advancing digital equity through device ownership. Scot is a graduate of the University of Utah and has completed the Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a very blue collar household, in a small second floor apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. My father was a lifelong automotive mechanic and small business owner, and my mother cleaned houses. At 76, she is still cleaning houses to this day. Neither of my parents went to college, but they worked hard to provide my brother and I with the best upbringing possible. Though things were hard at times, we had what we needed to get by. Without question, I learned lessons about work ethic and tenacity growing up in that environment.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The first one that comes to mind, probably due to his recent passing, is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a dark, dark book, but as a father of two teenage boys, I was moved by the unshakable connection between father and son woven throughout the book. Whether the son was real or imagined is to be debated, but the symbolism of father and son navigating through a horrific journey made me think of how we all have challenges to navigate together with our kids. Their journey through an ever worsening hellscape certainly is not how I’d describe my journey as a parent, but that father/son bond is best illustrated by one line at the beginning of the book, “…they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

A member of the Digitunity team, when discussing a setback on a project, recently said “there’s no such thing as wasted work.” It stuck with me because it’s a reminder for anyone in the nonprofit sector trying to solve a complex issue that this work is extremely challenging. If the solution was easy, it would have already be solved.

For us to be successful in making computer ownership possible for everyone, longstanding, deeply entrenched systems must be changed. The way the corporate sector, other large institutions, and the public as a whole views technology must shift. The digital divide is a civil rights issue, and it needs to be treated with urgency and the effort must be fueled with sufficient resources. These are all weighty, challenging things to overcome, and there will be successes and failures along the way. As Digitunity and peer organizations around the country continue to pursue digital equity, there’s certainly no wasted work along the way.

Ok, thank you. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. How would you define the Digital Divide? Can you explain or give an example?

There are different interpretations of what that term means, but I see the digital divide as the gap between those who have the opportunity to benefit from the vast resources available on the internet and those who do not. Owning a computer with a robust and affordable internet connection and having the skills and supports to use the computer productively is fundamental in the modern economy. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed what we already knew, or should have known– the divide is deep, complex, and persistent. It appears in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. It impacts old and young. An estimated 36 million people do not have a computer at home, largely due to affordability, and that is the focus of Digitunity’s work– owning a computer should be possible for everyone.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to close the digital divide? Can you share a story with us?

Digitunity’s work on this issue spans nearly 40 years, and our visionary founder, Dr. Yvette Marrin, is still involved as a member of our Board of Directors. Over all these years, we have seen the impact that a previously used computer can have on a recipient, and the change in trajectory it can foster. Our early years focused on helping organizations serving people with disabilities obtain computers for their constituents. The organizations we supported grew and diversified over the years into what is now called the Digital Opportunity Network, a 1,500-member constellation of nonprofits and public agencies that help those they serve obtain computers. Within that network is a group of nearly 100 nonprofit computer refurbishers who source, prepare, and distribute previously used devices in communities nationwide. Technology reuse is such a core strategy for closing the digital divide, and Digitunity is actively working on initiatives, interventions, and policies that open pipelines of supply to support digital inclusion work around the country.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important to create change in this area?

Owning a computer is the foundation of digital equity. It provides the ability to benefit from the boundless opportunity that the internet provides. It can be a pathway to family-sustaining income, education, banking, telehealth, community, civic participation, communication, entertainment, and so much more. And the gap is only widening– our society is only getting more digital, not less. Those on the outside are getting further and further behind. National Skills Coalition and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta recently released an analysis of jobs that require digital skills, where they found that percentage to be 92% of all jobs. The digital divide is not just an individual issue, it’s a workforce issue, an economy issue, and an education issue.

What specific actions has your company or organization taken to address the digital divide, and how do you ensure that your efforts are making a positive impact in the communities you serve?

Digitunity sits at the systems level in the digital inclusion landscape. We do not serve individuals, we use our influence, resources, and national reach to change how the corporate sector and other large institutions view their IT assets, seeing the value those computing devices could bring to the communities in which they operate. We are working to advise states, cities, and coalitions on sustainable device access programs and strategies that meet the needs of residents. And we work to cultivate and share knowledge to inform the field. Our most important work right now is to help state digital equity planning teams look at this issue in a sustainable, long-term way. $65 billion is beginning to flow to states for broadband infrastructure and access, along with digital skills programs and devices. A massive nationwide expansion of broadband must be accompanied by an innovative, national approach to device ownership. Otherwise, the funds will come and go and the gap in computer ownership will remain. That would be a tremendous missed opportunity.

What are some of the challenges that individuals or communities face when trying to bridge the digital divide?

The digital divide is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to solving it. Major investments in broadband infrastructure over the next five years will enable millions of people in America to have the newfound ability to connect to the internet. Affordable, subsidized connectivity programs help get more and more people connected. A wide variety of digital skills development tools are available for self-directed learning. There’s been a lot of effort put forth to close the digital divide. Where it gets extremely challenging is determining how to fill gaps. What if a community doesn’t have an ISP that participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program or doesn’t offer participants an affordable computer option? What if there’s no community-based technical support programs? What if there are no options for residents to find a free or low-cost computer? The best solutions are driven by local communities, but intentional effort must be put forth to establish what we call “sustainable device ecosystems.” The ecosystem approach is about building the connections between community assets that already exist, identifying gaps, and putting the intentional effort into breaking down silos and finding solutions. All community members deserve to have the ability to have a connected computer and the skills to use it.

What role do you see technology companies playing in closing the digital divide, and what steps can they take to ensure that their products and services are accessible to all?

Technology companies across the supply chain have a role to play in closing the digital divide. It starts with a shift in mindset. Owning a computer provides a person with the ability to participate meaningfully in the modern economy. It’s a need, not a want. If the tech sector starts there with their thinking, a number of outcomes could be possible.

First, manufacturers could be sure to design computers so that they may be easily repaired, refurbished, and reused after their first use. The trend toward lighter weight, small form factor, and fewer interchangeable parts make reusing devices more difficult and costly. Technology reuse is a key pathway to closing the device ownership gap.

Second, manufacturers could do a much better job of informing consumers what they can do when a device reaches the end of its first use. They could point consumers to information about wiping data and how to prepare a device for donation, and refer them to organizations that could receive those donations to support their constituents. Manufacturers could also offer incentives so that consumers donate their previous device at the time of purchasing a new one.

Lastly, the tech sector could put forth a meaningful effort to close the digital divide in a number of ways. Whenever there’s an office technology refresh, companies could themselves donate a percentage of their devices to community organizations. If there are policies that restrict donation, those policies can be changed. Companies could partner with a nonprofit refurbisher and host employee technology drives, generating a wide array of donated consumer tech from staff. Or companies could make digital inclusion part of their philanthropic giving portfolios or identify it as a key CSR or ESG goal.

When it comes to eliminating the device ownership aspect of the digital divide, the corporate sector and other large institutions hold the key to solving the issue and should play a meaningful role.

Because of investment coming from the federal government, we have funding for great access to infrastructure and digital skills training. In your view, what other policy changes are needed to address the digital divide? How can companies and policymakers work together to implement these changes?

The construct of this question, in itself, exposes a key challenge that needs to be overcome. For the digital divide to be eliminated, infrastructure and skills training are certainly part of the solution. However, owning a computer is such a fundamental, critical thing that is often overlooked when discussing this issue. In 2023, it’s not a “nice to have,” it’s a need.

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act presents states, tribes, and territories with a watershed moment for advancing digital equity. Policymakers must continue work on this issue, including renewing the Affordable Connectivity Program and making sure everyone who qualifies can benefit from both the internet subsidy AND the device subsidy.

Digitunity worked extremely hard to support the passage of the Computers for Veterans and Students Act, which was signed into law at the end of 2022. It’s an example of how legislative efforts at the state and federal levels can shift policies and processes so that computers can be made available for low income people. Once operationalized, this new pipeline of out-of-service but repairable federal computers will be directed to nonprofit refurbishers so that computers can be prepared and distributed, along with digital skills training, all across the country. Imagine the impact that will have.

We are already in Web3.0. What should we be doing as leaders to ensure the next iteration(s) of the Web are green, accessible and beneficial to as many people as possible?

Broadly speaking, society is is only becoming more digitized, not less. As new technologies are developed, there must be an effort to make sure everyone can benefit. Access to technology, one’s experience using the web, affordability, leveraging technology to solve complex problems, and so on, these are all critically important issues to keep top of mind as technology drives forward in leaps and bounds. There is such vast and growing inequity in this world, such a deep divide between the haves and have-nots. Leaders, pioneers, and innovators across the tech sector must be sure to be as inclusive as possible so that the gap does not further widen.

This is the signature question we ask in most of our interviews. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

1 . A global pandemic would dramatically expose the depth of the digital divide.

Until Covid-19 shuttered schools, closed offices, and forced us all into lockdown, very little attention was paid to the digital divide. Practitioners in this space would be jumping up and down trying to get the attention of government, the corporate sector, and the public on this issue. Overnight, the depth of the digital divide was exposed. All of a sudden, schools were scrambling to find devices and connectivity options for students, employees were quickly adapting to remote work, and legislative action was being taken. Today, $65 billion in federal funding has begun to flow to states, tribes, and territories to help solve this issue. It’s an extraordinary shift, and I’m optimistic about the road ahead.

2 . Remote work would become mainstream.

Digitunity (and its predecessor organization, National Cristina Foundation) has been a remote workplace since the mid 2000s. When I joined the team as executive director in June of 2019, I viewed the concept of working remotely such an incredible gift. I could be more productive, I had unprecedented freedom, and I would not lose time to commuting or distractions. Of course, I received the “do you work in your pajamas” jokes, and “how do you stay motivated” questions. Today, with the profound shift to remote work not only commonplace but expected of companies to provide, now I feel that Digitunity was ahead of its time.

3 . The digital inclusion field is truly inspiring.

It’s not widely known that there are thousands of organizations across America working on closing the digital divide. It is inspiring and humbling to be just one contributing organization working shoulder to shoulder with an army of other stakeholders working to solve a singular issue.

4 . The digital divide is largely off the radar of philanthropy.

Connect Humanity released a report in 2022 which examined how the philanthropic sector was working to close the digital divide. The results were staggering. Just 0.05% of overall giving from large US foundations between 2010–2019 went to efforts to close the digital divide. This issue just hasn’t been a priority for philanthropy. The report also found that climate change, as an area of charitable giving, receives nearly 10 times as many grants as the digital divide. Government funding will play a large role in solving this issue over the next five years, but philanthropy will need to be much more engaged on the digital divide over the long haul so that solutions can be sustained long into the future.

5 . Nonprofits need support so they can effectively solve problems.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been surprised at how nonprofits are, on the one hand, expected to solve some of society’s most challenging problems, and on the other hand, expected to do so with very little overhead and in the most frugal way. At the same time, nonprofits are at a disadvantage in recruiting and often don’t have the resources necessary to be highly effective. From small local charities to large national organizations, nonprofits need to have widespread support and be armed with the resources they need so that they can be more effective in achieving their missions.

What role can individuals play in closing the digital divide, and what steps can they take to support these efforts?

Since 2005, Digitunity has provided website visitors with an easy to use online donation platform for technology. Our Digital Opportunity Network is made up of over 1,500 nonprofits and public agencies that help provide computers to their constituents. If someone like you or me has a used laptop, desktop, Chromebook, or tablet, and would like to support community members in need, they can go to Digitunity.org to be easily matched to a nearby charity to make the donation.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/scothenley/ or follow Digitunity on all major social media platforms to learn more about the work.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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