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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.


An Online Anti-Poverty Resource

Lindsay Nielsen

Reprinted from "Income" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 7 (2), p. 25

What is PovNet?

PovNet is a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that provides online tools to facilitate communication, community and access to information about poverty and related issues.

The PovNet website ( comprises networks, educational tools and support resources. The site is designed for advocates, community workers and marginalized people, as well as the general public. It serves people in urban and rural locations throughout British Columbia and Canada. The site addresses a wide range of topics, including income assistance, mental health, unemployment, housing, legal aid, disability, and special communities such as LGBTQ, Aboriginal and First Nations, and immigrants and refugees.

PovNet doesn’t provide direct advocacy services, but is an information portal for connecting consumers with organizations that do. Front-line advocates can be helpful to people living with mental illness and addictions by assisting with housing issues, obtaining Persons with Disabilities status, finding appropriate employment, helping navigate the legal system, and much more. For example, front-line workers on a PovNet email list discussed options for helping a man with schizophrenia when his driver’s licence was taken away despite his clean driving record.

PovNet resources

Email networks
Penny Goldsmith, the executive coordinator of PovNet, explains that the organization’s confidential email lists for front-line workers provide a forum for problem-solving. Workers can brainstorm solutions and share strategies for helping people access the services they need.

Advocates in BC can subscribe to lists addressing income assistance, mental health, intercultural issues, First Nations and Aboriginal issues, employment, workers’ rights, housing and debt. PovNet operates national lists on Employment Insurance (EI), Canada Pension Plan and older adults, as well as a general issues list.

The email lists can be useful for front-line workers that assist people who have a mental illness. In a recent example, Goldsmith noted, list users were able to share information about how to best help a person with a mental illness who was experiencing discrimination from a landlord.

Goldsmith says that because the lists are forums for grassroots advocates and self-advocates to discuss cases and share strategies, the lists are closed to government agency employees.

PovNetU’s online courses provide a practical opportunity for front-line workers to improve their knowledge and skills. The courses are facilitated by experienced advocates and are free of charge. Course topics include an introduction to advocacy, Employment Insurance (EI), business writing, Persons with Disabilities appeals, residential tenancy, seniors’ residential care, and income assistance advocacy.

Each online course involves the following components:

  • Modular structure: Course modules take participants through the content week by week. They include plain language, practical exercises, as well as links to other resources.

  • Discussion forums: Courses include private, password-protected discussion lists, collaborative workspaces, and journals, where learners can discuss the course content. Participants can complete exercises independently or as a team.

  • Facilitation: Experienced advocates lead the courses, moderate the forum conversations and provide feedback to participants.

Each course takes approximately four to six weeks to complete, and participants can access the course materials 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Goldsmith explains that this flexibility in scheduling makes the courses particularly attractive for people with busy lives: “You can put the kids to bed and go on PovNetU at midnight.” Additionally, she notes that the educational opportunities provided by PovNetU are well received by advocates in rural communities: “In some cases, PovNet is all they’ve got.” After participants have completed a course, they receive a PovNetU certificate of completion.

PovNet regularly consults with service providers to ensure that its courses are meeting the needs of the communities it serves.

Additional resources
The PovNet website also includes:

  • A user-friendly directory of front-line workers in BC and across Canada

  • News about poverty and related issues

  • Links to provincial, territorial and federal laws

  • An event calendar for non-profit groups

  • Job board for non-profit groups and service providers
  • Facebook and Twitter accounts where people can find up-to-date information about poverty and related issues


While today, a vast number of people have integrated the Internet into their lives, this was less the case 14 years ago. When PovNet started in 1997, Goldsmith recalls speaking with many people who were concerned about the accessibility of online resources. They were concerned that those living in poverty were unlikely to have easy access to the Internet and may not be familiar with the technology.

In PovNet’s early days, many advocates themselves were hesitant about using an online resource. They were unfamiliar with the technology and believed that taking time out to learn about it would detract from their service to clients. However, they started using PovNet when they saw how much it helped them in their work.

PovNet has a strong mandate to ensure its resources are as accessible as possible. “If we are running a new course, we make sure that people can access it through their public libraries and on their computer at home. We don’t create any technology that would leave anyone out.”

For those who do not have access to the Internet, PovNet can be accessed at local libraries and community centres. The Internet can also be accessed at locations funded through Industry Canada’s Community Access Program (CAP) (see

The PovNet board seeks to represent the broad communities that PovNet serves. Board members include representatives from disability, intercultural, First Nations and poverty groups, as well as legal advisors and researchers. The board also has a member who is on income assistance. Additionally, PovNet has an intercultural working group (a board sub-committee) that aims to identify the specific needs of settlement and community workers, and how they might best use PovNet tools in their communities.

The Law Foundation of BC is PovNet’s core funder. Other organizations and unions provide financial support and facilitators for PovNetU courses.

Future projects

Goldsmith is currently working on a book about PovNet. A new course on debt and an advanced income assistance course are in the planning stages. An additional EI course may also be established if funding becomes available.

Reflecting on PovNet, Goldsmith says: “I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work with such an amazing community of advocates. I have a huge amount of respect for what they do and am glad to be able to help make PovNet tools work for them.”

About the author
Lindsay lives in Vancouver

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