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How the Leacock Foundation Uses Technology to Reach Underserved Youth

Technology PlanningAccessible Technology

The Leacock Foundation runs educational programs that reach underserved youth in South Africa and in Toronto -- all with just a handful of staff. How are they able to accomplish this feat?
With a lot of passion, hard work and good tech planning.

To help nonprofits understand the benefits of having a solid tech plan, I spoke with Judy MacLellan, Program Director at the Leacock Foundation and Justine Stacey, Development Coordinator at the Leacock Foundation, about how they’ve integrated technology into their day-to-day work and mission activities.

I’ve summarized Judy and Justine’s insights in this post, so your nonprofit can also benefit from their invaluable advice!

A Bit About The Leacock Foundation

The Leacock Foundation is a registered Canadian nonprofit that funds and facilitates enriched literacy and leadership opportunities for underserved youth in Toronto and South Africa. They use a unique partnership model to connect youth and their communities both locally and globally, and integrate technology wherever possible to ensure students receive the best access to learning materials, books, and communication.

In South Africa, the Leacock Foundation partners with the Get Ahead Project (GAP) schools, which span three campuses in Queenstown and Whittlesea in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s poorest province. Over the past few years, the Leacock Foundation has built and funded fully-stocked computer labs at each GAP school, complete with desktops, Internet connections and e-readers.

1. Why is technology important to the Leacock Foundation and how did you arrive at this decision?

Our mission in Toronto and South Africa is the same: to enrich literacy and leadership opportunities for underserved youth. However, we face very different challenges depending on our location. For example:

  • In Toronto, we work with children who benefit from extra literacy and math programming and/or don’t have access to enriching extracurricular opportunities. How do we supplement their learning without adding an extra burden to our teachers?
  • In South Africa, textbooks are expensive and schools lack certain resources like science labs and libraries. How do we equip our students without adding financial pressure to their parents and schools?

Our Foundation recognizes that technology can help level the playing field. If we can effectively integrate technology into our mission and day-to-day work, we can enrich learning and opportunities for underserved youth no matter where we are -- in South Africa or in Toronto.

2. What technology systems are you using?

We use Google for Nonprofits to manage our operations and work collaboratively across all of our locations, and we use Google Docs, Dropbox, e-readers, laptops and both Macs and PCs at our partner schools.

3. How have you integrated these technologies into your mission activities?

In Toronto, we run Saturday morning, after school, and summer programs for youth living in some of Toronto’s most underserved communities (St James Town, the urban Aboriginal community, the Jane and Finch community, and Scarborough). Each community has different needs, but for students who are not keen on reading books, we have introduced and supplied e-readers (iPads), so that students are more motivated. Learning on an iPad is often more engaging than reading a book and encourages independence and self-led learning.

Many students who were non-readers will read for 45 minutes straight now!

In South Africa, our students range from kindergarten through to grade 12. We provide e-readers for our students and laptops for our teachers, as books are expensive in South Africa, and most schools do not have libraries. We’ve found that the e-readers and laptops have not only helped with engaging students, but also provided them with learning opportunities that would otherwise be non-existent.

For example, our schools in South Africa do not have science labs, but now our teachers can easily show their students a virtual laboratory on their laptops and using projectors. In another instance, students in South Africa can only graduate from high school if they pass the national exam. Now that they have e-readers and Internet access, they can write practice exams online and be better equipped to graduate with results that will give them access to higher education and/or employment.

These technologies have really empowered our students that come from less privileged families, enabling them to succeed no matter their station.

4. What were the strategies you used to get Board and staff buy-in?

Thankfully our Board is incredibly forward-thinking, so when we approached them with the idea to supplement our schools with new technologies, they were very supportive. Our donors love the idea as well, as they understand the importance of tech literacy and how technology can enrich education.

A great bonus of providing laptops and internet access to our partner schools in South Africa, is that our Toronto partner schools and donors can now connect to classrooms via video and Skype. Our partners and donors can see the impact of their donations first hand, as many of our students and teachers put on performances, such as a kid’s choir, to show their thanks.

Due to a lack of access to technology in rural communities, many of the teachers at our partner school in South Africa hadn’t used laptops, projectors, and e-readers before Leacock partnered with the schools. To help the teachers in South Africa overcome technology barriers, we went to the schools in South Africa and brought with us three e-readers. We taught the teachers how to use them and tested them in a small classroom. We asked the teachers to pick which book they would like the kids to read and loaded them into the e-readers. Interestingly enough, the children figured out how to use the e-reader in a matter of minutes! Once the teachers and kids were comfortable using the e-readers, we partnered with World Reader and provided our teachers with 120 Kindles.

5. What are the biggest benefits of integrating technology into your day-to-day work?

Integrating technology have helped us achieve our goals and unlock our potential to help underserved youth in Toronto and South Africa. Since we have three full-time and one part-time staff member at the Leacock Foundation; the goal is to ensure we do not spend more than 12% of our resources on the administration of our organization.

Now that we have the right technology systems in place, we can dedicate more time to delivering our programs and equipping our students, teachers, and schools.

Technology has also enabled us to save time and money on travelling. We operate programming in three communities in Toronto and three communities in South Africa, and thanks to Google for Nonprofits, we’re able to accomplish administrative tasks, share files, meet virtually over Google+ Hangouts, and collaborate on projects together without needing to travel to each physical location.

The operations of our programs have dramatically improved as well. For example we run sponsorship programs for South African students who cannot afford school fees, so we match donors to students in-need (currently we have about 70 sponsorships). Using Google Docs, we can easily share and update information, upload updated photos and our counterparts in South Africa can do the same, allowing collaboration in real time. Everything is logged and on record, making it easy for us to follow-up and take action.

6. If you could give one piece of advice to other nonprofits who have not considered integrating technologies, what would it be?

You need to match technology to your mission objective. What are you trying to do, what are your options and how does technology help you accomplish your objective? You’ll have to ask these questions in order to justify and explain your proposed budget to your Board and staff, including what are the current gaps in your programs (e.g., our schools can’t afford textbooks) and how technology can fill that gap (e.g., invest in e-readers that can be loaded with e-books).

Sustainability is also a large part of using technology so we also recommend having a technology champion. This could be a local or remote staff member who is eager to help others. Investing in technology is more than just purchasing and implementation - you need to train people to use it and make sure your technologies are being used wisely.