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Matt Spurway, Executive Director of GEO Nova Scotia

Our Q&A with Matt Spurway

1. Please tell us about your motivation to work in the Nonprofit space?

My path to the non-profit sector was not a straight line, at all. For 15 years I was in the private sector, mostly retail, and mostly with family-run businesses competing against the big players. An emphasis on outstanding customer experiences is something I carry with me from those days.

In 2011 I had the chance to use my skills to serve citizens instead of customers when I became a Constituency Assistant to a newly-elected Member of Parliament. In those four years I got to meet and assist so many people and organizations in the Nonprofit Sector. They were working so hard with very few resources, and they were tackling problems far more complex and meaningful than most of the things that the private sector concerned itself with.

When my time in the Public Sector was done, I leapt at the opportunity to work in the community, for the community, on important things that were affecting people everyday.

2. For the past two years you have been successfully addressing the Digital disparity in the Dartmouth and surrounding area. Tell us about the journey that got you there.

In 2016 I was hired to be the first Community Coordinator for a new “Collective Impact” initiative called Between the Bridges in the community of Dartmouth North, here in Halifax Regional Municipality. The idea was as simple as it was radical: we can only tackle complex, long-standing social challenges if we all worked together, and that takes an upfront investment of time and resources. Every day we strove to bring people and organizations from all sectors together to the same table with the people who were being affected by the systems we were trying to change. By taking time to build relationships of trust and respect, we were able to make good progress on a range of issues including affordable housing, access to healthcare, food security, and community pride.

Most of our time was spent facilitating and hosting meetings among partners and participants, so when the pandemic lockdown started in March 2020, our work changed completely. Not only did all our meetings go online, but suddenly having a computer and home internet access became a critical lifeline that was simply unaffordable for many in our community, including people we were working with. Something had to be done!

The “GEO Project” (Getting Everyone Online) began within weeks, as a new program of the Public Good Society of Dartmouth, with support from Between the Bridges and additional seed funding from United Way Halifax and Kiwanis Dartmouth. By the end of the year, with a network of local partners, 40 households were connected to free high-speed home internet they couldn’t otherwise afford, and 50 free refurbished computers including webcams were distributed.

The model we developed to administer the program was a success. Simple and flexible, it shares responsibility among partners in a way that plays to everyone’s strengths, while aiming to make an excellent experience for participants.

A key moment came that Fall when the Public Good Society was awarded a Bhayana Family Foundation/ United Way Invisible Champion Award for the GEO Project. Along with exposure and additional credibility, the award came with a $5,000 consultation bursary from Davis Pier Consulting.

With their professional assistance, and based on our success to date, we landed a collection of smaller grants from the Province of Nova Scotia. Aided by the generous support from a number of strategic partners including Davis Pier, the “GEO Project” became “GEO Nova Scotia”, and 12-month pilot programs were established in four regions across the province.

Together, through a network of almost 70 Referral Partners, GEO Nova Scotia partners connected over 350 households with one year of free high-speed internet and distributed over 600 new Chromebook and 300 peripherals (e.g., webcams and headsets)

In March 2022, GEO Nova Scotia was formally registered as a non-profit society, led by an outstanding Board of Directors, and in April we received funding from the provincial Department of Community Services to continue to develop and grow the model, including the addition of a 1:1 “Digital Champions” skills program, based on a similar model in Scotland.

3. You have initiated and maintained intersectoral partnerships/collaborations to support GeoNova Scotia. This includes forging a successful alliance in Nova Scotia Please share your thoughts/ advice on what it takes to create and successfully maintain these alliances.

GEO Nova Scotia’s greatest strength is our network of partners across the province and across sectors, which is now extending across Canada with partners like ACS-Metropolis Institute and “across the pond” with the Mhor Collective in Scotland.

Creating and maintaining successful partnerships among different organizations and sectors starts by fostering relationships of trust and respect. Investing time upfront to understand each other’s values, goals, and perspective on the challenges we are working on is really important.

I also work hard to ensure the way in which we invite people and organizations to participate is suited to their needs and capacity. We only want partners to do what they can do, what they want to do, and what ultimately helps them do their jobs better, whatever they may be. It works the same whether the partner is a business, a nonprofit, a government department, or a university researcher. When people get to do what they really want and are not asked to do anything else, they love it!

Ultimately, everyone involved shares two things: a common goal (Getting Everyone Online), and the understanding that we can’t do it alone, but we can do it together.

It’s notable that over the entire two years, among hundreds of partners and from across the province working together to bring GEO Nova Scotia to life, almost no one has conducted meetings in person. All of our relationship building and collaboration has happened online – which just goes to show how powerful access to the internet can be.

4. As you think about your organization five years hence where do you see your organization strategically moving towards?

In five years I see GEO Nova Scotia having successfully scaled-up and integrated across the province as a systemic response to ensuring universal access to the core needs of Digital Inclusion: affordable high-speed internet, good devices, and the basic skills to use them confidently and safely. I also foresee this model being replicated and adapted across Canada as the challenges we face are similar in almost every jurisdiction. We are certainly happy to share what we’ve learned!

5. Please share with us the impact that digitizing low income families has had on their family life. What do they say and how has it changed their lifestyle?

Our 2021-22 Evaluation Report is just about to be published to our website and the feedback from partners and participants has been overwhelming. Whether it is access to education, employment, mental healthcare, or family and friends, the impact on people’s lives is profound. Here are some samples of what they’ve said:

“This opportunity gave me the freedom to work from home when things shut down and still gives me the freedom to work from home on days I’m not well as I deal with a chronic illness that sometimes keeps me from leaving the house.”

“It saved my life. I’m suicidal and it’s kept me alive. It has kept my mind occupied.”

“Previously I had to find free wifi spots and then sometimes the service wasn’t available or too many people were using at the same time and there wasn’t any privacy. Now from the comfort of home I can use the net freely for job searches and emails.”

“One of our participants actually got connected to AA because of her access to the internet. She attended her first meeting online.”

“One gentleman has some health concerns, so he accesses the internet for health appointments and things like that. But also, he just had a new grandchild who was born in Newfoundland! He is using the internet to communicate back and forth with his daughter in Newfoundland and get to know his grandchild, which is really wonderful.”

“Get Everyone Online (GEO) referral and application process is barrier free – it is the first time in a long time that there are no barriers for a participant to access a service. It was such a pleasure to go through this process – it was quick and seamless while keeping participant dignity at the forefront.”

“It was an easy referral process. And I think, in this day and age, it’s super important to keep it simple. We talk about service providers working in silos and this is a time when that certainly did not happen. Everybody was really working together, and it was noticeable. That’s what I really enjoyed about working with GEO.”