Meets pressing community needs by mobilizing caring New Yorkers in volunteer service.

The Digital Divide: Going Mobile to Connect More Volunteers to Volunteering by Gary Bagley

Around New York City for the past couple of years, politicians and pundits have spoken of a “tale of two cities.” This story of New York’s wealthy versus its poor, who often live within blocks of one another, focuses on the effects of income inequality, including a lack of access to comparable resource and opportunity.

As New York Cares works to motivate all New Yorkers to volunteer, we have seen this divide manifest itself in a mission-critical way – specifically radically different levels of access to desktop and laptop computers and, as a result, Internet service. Our staff and volunteers have seen firsthand the expected challenges of completing school assignments, applying for college, or seeking employment for those who lack Internet access.  But, through our Focus Neighborhood Initiative, we have also seen how lack of access also prevented many New Yorkers from volunteering on our programs. As proud as we were (and are) of the project search, sign-up, and management system we have developed over the years, only computer owners with Internet access could easily employ those functionalities. We had built a system that put up a barrier to the very sign ups we were founded to encourage.

More important, in the very neighborhoods where we are working to engage more volunteers, computer ownership is low. According to the U.S. Commerce Department less than 50% of households earning $25,000 or below have broadband connections at home, compared to 93 percent of homes earning more than $100,000.

Of course, the solution was in our very hands – smartphones – a more affordable way to go online. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 40% of households earning $30,000 or less go online mostly through their phones, compared with just 17% of those earning $50,000 or more.

To continue to bridge the gap between those who want to help and those who need help, New York Cares launched a mobile-optimized website last December that now provides high usability across tablets and smartphones. The early returns on our investment are excellent:

  • Nearly half of the visitors to the New York Cares website from NYC’s most underserved communities use mobile devices to access the site (while the overall rate is just above 30%).
  • The number of South Bronx residents who volunteer on our local programs has more than doubled from 2013 to 2014.
  • Citywide, local volunteerism is up 79% in our Focus Neighborhoods, where we filled 10,000 volunteer positions on New York Cares projects last year.

Since we went mobile, more people have been able to volunteer and engage in their communities, regardless of where they live or how much money they make. 

-Gary Bagley is the Executive Director of New York Cares.

Have comments, questions, or just want to be in the loop? Tweet him at @GBagley_NYCares

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