’Tis the Season: Microsoft Employee Giving and Volunteerism Strong Despite Sagging Economy

REDMOND, Wash. — Dec. 22, 2009 — A survey commissioned by World Vision shows that American charities have seen a significant drop in giving this year because of the economic downturn, and year-end generosity is likely to be low as well. The nation’s most successful fundraising organizations expect to see their income decline by an average of 9 percent in 2009, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

And it’s not just charities in the U.S. that are feeling the pinch: Around the world, nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve are seeing reduced donations.

Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft’s senior director of Global Community Affairs, says charitable organizations are a key part of building healthy communities — and those communities are the foundation of the economy overall. So when cash donations dry up, it’s even more important for individuals to do what they can.

“Helping nonprofits succeed even in down times is important for everyone,” Badshah says. “While every organization needs cash flow to survive, individuals may be able to provide even more value by donating their skills, and their time.”

Microsoft’s employee giving program is designed to encourage both: The company matches all donations dollar for dollar, and contributes $17 per hour for volunteer time, up to a total of $12,000 per U.S.-based employee per year.

“Our employee Giving Campaign runs every October and has been a tradition at Microsoft for more than 25 years,” Badshah says. “We encourage employees to come up with creative ways to donate and volunteer.”

Since 1983, Microsoft and its employees have provided more than $3.9 billion in cash, services and software to nonprofits worldwide through localized, company-sponsored giving and volunteer campaigns. This year, despite one of the worst economic environments in decades, Microsoft employees exceeded the company’s $70 million goal for annual giving. Matched volunteer hours are already up more than 8 percent from the previous year.

“Our employees are the heart and soul of our company and it was their passion and creativity that made these results possible,” Badshah says.

The Difference One Person Can Make

For user-experience researcher Tazin Shadid, one of the attractions to joining Microsoft in the first place was the company’s giving campaign and matching funds, and he has put them to use through the years he’s been with the company.

Though his first efforts were very successful — Shadid has founded computer centers in rural Bangladesh that have become self-sustaining — since January 2008, he’s been better known as the founder of a health clinic that serves the urban slums of Dhaka, where a family of five may live in a 100-square-foot room on $30–$40 a month.

“There are a lot of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and nonprofits providing healthcare in rural areas of Bangladesh, but in the cities many people don’t have access,” says Shadid.

Determined to help, Shadid worked with a local nonprofit to plan a part-time mobile health clinic, but soon realized the cost of healthcare in Bangladesh was so low, he could afford to fund a full clinic, five days a week, four hours a day.

“To give you an idea, an X-ray costs $60-$70 in local currency, which is about $1.50 U.S.,” he says. “If Microsoft matches 100 hours of my efforts, that equals lab work for as many as 1,000 people.”

Today the clinic has expanded and moved to a bigger location, and is seeing dozens of people every day. Shadid has also taken on the process of digitizing health records and providing patients with health cards that add portability to their medical information. Since many of the conditions they see involve malnutrition and sanitation, Shadid’s clinic is also working hard on preventive care and education for the urban poor.

This past year, he’s taken another step, creating videos and promotional materials to help publicize the clinics and inspire others to donate. The funds will be used to provide new equipment, expand services, and eventually open more clinics.

“We are working with an NGO to find a good location for a new clinic,” he says. “Ultimately we want to use this as a model, so we can establish more clinics like a network. And then with our digital project, we have all the information in our database, so people can go to another clinic and continue their care.”

Microgiving for Maximum Impact

The realization that small donations in one economy’s currency can add up to a huge impact on people’s lives in another region has inspired a host of nonprofits based on the concept of “microlending.”

That concept was also the driving force behind a project called HopeMongers, an organization started by a team of employees, Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals, community developers, partners, and NGOs, which connects community-development projects in Africa with needed funding. The HopeMongers effort was started by Microsoft’s Sam Henry, who is currently taking a one-year sabbatical to work full-time to help make the group’s projects a reality.

According to Developer Evangelist Jeff Blankenburg, who has worked extensively on the HopeMongers effort, many of the projects involve providing clean drinking water, or funding for schools and orphanages — things that may require a significant investment for a single donor, but which can easily be achieved by several donors giving smaller amounts.

“Not everybody has $1,000 to give to hire a crew to dig a well,” says Blankenburg. “HopeMongers works to identify these projects, and then for as little as $10 you can contribute via the HopeMongers site to fund them.”

The HopeMongers site also provides easy ways to link a project to a blog or Facebook account, so anyone can help publicize a specific project and inspire others to contribute.

The success of HopeMongers has also led to an effort within the software-development community to “microlend” time and skills for the benefit of various charities. Through a new effort called CodeMongers, developers can donate a few hours of their time to help nonprofits develop or improve their Web pages.

“If you were to hire a small agency to build you a Web site it might cost $5,000 to $30,000, depending on the scope of your project,” Blankenburg says. “A lot of nonprofits can’t make that kind of investment.”

Similar to HopeMongers, CodeMongers identifies projects for groups in need of assistance. It then breaks up the projects into bite-sized chunks that a developer can “check out” and work on in whatever time he or she has available.

CodeMongers also sponsors “Give Camps,” which are essentially 48-hour weekend sessions where a group of developers gets together and knocks out a slew of projects. Blankenburg says the Give Camps may be one of the most rewarding experiences he’s had both personally and professionally.

“There are often tears at the end of these events because people have given everything they have,” he says. “People work around the clock. It’s an amazing team-building exercise, and I’ve learned a lot about project management too, just by working with a ragtag team of people who were thrown together because we have five more people and one more project and a few hours left to get it done.”

Getting Creative With Employee Giving

Improving the Web site behind a giving effort may seem like nominal progress, but it can mean big gains in terms of the overall goal of increasing donations.

The redesigned site for Microsoft’s annual charity auction rallied developers, prompted nearly 1,000 item donations, and ultimately helped raise nearly $500,000 for the United Way.

Just ask 16-year Microsoft veteran Tom Moran. Currently Director of Customer & Partner Experience for Microsoft Operations, Moran has been an active participant in Microsoft’s annual charity auction for several years, but was able to take a much more active role this year.

Moran says the auction traditionally used a small Web application and generated somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $300,000. But things changed this year when Microsoft CIO Tony Scott became a co-chairman of the company’s annual giving campaign: “Tony is very interested in making technology come alive for people,” Moran says. “He was instrumental in giving the auction team the support and direction needed to take the auction tool much further.”

Instead of the traditional Web application used previously, the team, composed of nearly 20 dedicated volunteers and full-time employees from Microsoft IT, completely redesigned the auction site using Microsoft Silverlight and Windows Azure. The end product was so well-received that it was shown at Microsoft’s Global CIO Summit and demonstrated this past fall by Bob Muglia, president of the Server and Tools Business at Microsoft, at the Professional Developers Conference.

“Besides the auction, it’s also helped provide employees a great way to talk to customers about what’s possible with cloud computing,” says Raj Biyani, general manager of Strategic Initiatives in Microsoft IT. “The technology made for a really beautiful, full-functioning site that was a real leap forward. So that’s the technology side of things.”

The other side, of course, is the creativity and energy that goes into the auction itself. Says Biyani: “No matter how great the technology is, if there aren’t the items and energy and excitement, it’s not going to be successful.”

The team of testers, designers, developers and program managers built the site and then worked with employees to get nearly 1,000 items into the auction. “The volunteer nature of the team is a great story of giving,” Biyani says. “In addition to raising money through a great auction experience, Microsoft matches the team’s volunteer time on the project. It’s really a double win for a good cause.”

Auctioned items included a private lunch with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and a tour of Bill Gates’ house. Also on the auction block were break dancing classes, painting lessons, helmets and jerseys signed by Seattle Seahawks, and technology collectibles such as Microsoft Bob paraphernalia, in addition to such creative items as the “world’s greatest bologna sandwich,” which ended up going for $505.

“I don’t know what fool bought that,” Moran says. “Actually I do: it was me. It was one of those fun items where there was a lot of bidding and some competitive spirit.”

All told, between Microsoft’s matching of volunteer time and the actual proceeds, this year’s auction hauled in nearly $500,000. Microsoft’s matching of the volunteers’ time amounted to more than $32,000. All proceeds went to the United Way.

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