It’s easy to assume everyone has access to the Internet in a first-world country like Canada, but in reality 17 per cent of Canadian households don’t have internet at home – including 58 per cent of households with incomes of $30 000 or less.
That’s millions of Canadians falling behind in the digital age where almost every aspect of our lives is tied to the Internet, including a vital one: employment.
That’s why the John Howard Society of Durham Region (the JHS) operates four Community Resource Centres to help the neediest in their community access technology and find jobs online.
I spoke with Paul Dobbs, Manager of Technology and Community Development at the JHS, to learn more about how technology helps them achieve their mission.
“Our funded employment resource rooms in Oshawa and Whitby are an essential free service to the community, [who often] need help from experienced staff with their resume, cover letter and interview preparation,” said Paul.
“Our other two sites in Ajax and Bowmanville provide similar public access without the support of employment staff, but community members still use it to access technology.”
I can't afford my own computer, so this is essential to me.
All four locations used to be funded by Employment Ontario until 2008 when funding was cut for the Ajax and Bowmanville locations. However, the JHS recognized the community still needed them, so they decided to stretch some budgets and align staffing to keep them open for computer, fax, and photocopier access.
"I can't afford my own computer, so this is essential to me,” one patron told the JHS in a feedback survey. “The library is good too, but it has different rules that don't give me the same kind of access."
What makes the JHS’ computer rooms unique?
Library computers often use ‘nanny’ software that digitally boots you after a set amount of time. The JHS’ unique approach puts an emphasis on accessibility; the amount of computer time provided varies depending on how busy the computer rooms are and what you’re trying to accomplish. In other words, your time limit is a negotiation, not a hard stop.
This approach is deliberate. It ensures that patrons interact with staff, which adds a personal touch and provides a key benefit; because the JHS offers a multitude of social services, their computer rooms act as a beacon to draw in underprivileged members of the community, giving staff the opportunity to build relationships with them and then connect them to the services they need.
“Often folks don’t have a problem coming in to check out job opportunities or to use our computers, whereas it might be more touchy, especially for males, to come in and say ‘I need counselling’,” Paul said. “So they’ll come in for these employment services, but then after they work with our staff, things come to the surface: ‘I’m having trouble with my relationship because of the stress of being unemployed’. Then we can directly connect them to the other staff we have here.”
That’s why the founders of the JHS decided early on to address a range of barriers, including housing challenges, literacy, counselling, parenting skills and more. They knew their community would have a multitude of different, but related needs, and they wanted to have a holistic approach to their services.
Technology is essential to our ability to enable staff to do their work, and to thousands of clients to be able to have free access to tools.
The numbers speak volumes: in 2015, the JHS’ Whitby and Oshawa computer rooms served 5 000 people alone, and they assisted 1 800 households with their housing services, among other successful programs.
"I have always had great results using the John Howard Society,” a patron said. “It has been a big and positive part of my life. I’m truly grateful."
TechSoup Canada’s Impact
In the early 2000’s, Paul Dobbs and the JHS struggled to access the technology they needed. They would send out multiple ‘community request’ applications to companies like Microsoft and Adobe, asking each one individually whether or not they would support their organization with discounted or donated software.
Their tight operational budget also forced them to run their networks using cheap hubs that couldn’t be programmed and were therefore slow. As Paul pointed out, “you can't get much done if your staff are typing up case notes and having to wait through screen-stutters for the characters to appear.”
The discovery of TechSoup Canada in 2003* was exactly what the JHS needed.
“Technology is essential to our ability to enable staff to do their work, and to thousands of clients to be able to have free access to tools,” Paul said. “Having TechSoup Canada as the clearing-house, as a single point of easy access to multiple titles, is a tremendous relief for easing the burden of maintaining our resources.”
In addition to offering affordable technology, TechSoup Canada also acts as an educational resource for nonprofits. We create and curate tech resources, and run a call centre to provide other nonprofits with download and installation support. Paul said this is essential for many nonprofits who don’t have the luxury of a dedicated IT staff.
“There are a lot of little agencies here in Durham that have contracted out [their IT] and only contact the company when something’s broken,” Paul said. “For these organizations, TechSoup Canada becomes so important because you can go to one site [and receive] great support.”
Over the years, the JHS used TechSoup Canada to acquire Windows and MS Office licenses, graphic design software to create marketing materials, and Cisco network switches to support their network structure.
“It's the invisible glue that makes many of the things we do possible,” Paul said. “If we didn't have TechSoup Canada, I don't think we could have come to the point where we are today.”
We are honoured to be able to support nonprofits like the JHS and the great work they do. We hope their story inspires you and other nonprofits to use technology to empower your efforts.
*The JHS used TechSoup US’ services in 2003, as TechSoup Canada wasn’t founded until 2009.