Tom Brown and his Microsoft colleagues had just finished serving dinner to more than 150 young hospital patients and their families. Sore and exhausted from the volunteer effort, he went to grab a cold soft drink from the machine and found a little boy, hunched over a walker in his robe, doing the same.
“Hey, how are you doing?” Brown asked.
The boy said he’d gotten a transplant but now had an infection — and then quickly found a bright spot in what would be a dismal situation for most: “What I really like here,” he said, “is the soda in this machine only costs 25 cents.”
“He had a big smile on his face, and it just hit me really hard. I thought, I have nothing to complain about. All my soreness just disappeared,” recalls Brown, a senior business program manager for Microsoft IT. “It’s stuff like that that’s bound to change you. Once you volunteer — you’re hooked for life.”
The huge dinner at Ronald McDonald House, a charity that supports the families of ailing kids who face long hospital stays, was just a small part of the job for Brown and six other Microsoft employees who were chosen to help run Microsoft’s annual Employee Giving Campaign.
Microsoft provides these seven “loaned professionals” with four months away from their usual roles to learn about people around the world who need help and the nonprofits dedicated to providing it; the team then works to inspire and enable other employees to donate money and time to causes close to their own hearts.
The campaign folds in fundraising events throughout the month of October, from a 5K run to an online auction. Microsoft matches each employee donation and contributes $25 for each hour an employee volunteers in the massive effort, which raised $117 million for more than 20,000 nonprofits last year.
“These ‘loaned professionals’ from across the company bring a special set of expertise and skills that helps us enhance and scale Microsoft’s Employee Giving Campaign,” says Lori Forte Harnick, Microsoft’s general manager of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “Our goal is to encourage employees to get involved and actively support the causes they care about, and there’s no better way to do that than by gathering insights and spreading the word through their friends and colleagues.”
The loaned professionals work closely with “vice president-appointed leaders,” a group of more than 200 employees who help boost the giving efforts of teams across the company.
On a recent fall day, the loaned professionals left their Redmond, Wash., offices to tour nearby Medical Teams International, where they looked over poignant displays depicting the dire situations around the world where the nonprofit has helped and others where aid is still needed.
A wall covered with 1,000 paper dolls shows how many children are infected with HIV every day. A small pile of clothes in a cramped tent shows the entirety of one mother’s possessions after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A towering wave painted on a wall helps convey the horror of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Microsoft team got a quick training session in the nonprofit’s warehouse and then began helping sort medical supplies to be packaged and sent to inadequately equipped hospitals and clinics overseas.
Yan Zhong, an Outlook senior program manager who’s on loan to the giving campaign, looks for opportunities like these for this year’s micro-volunteering pilot program. She connects nonprofits that have tasks that can be performed on or near Microsoft’s Redmond campus with employees who can help out during their work day.
“It’s a way to spend an hour knowing you’ve done something fun and really good for the community,” she says.
Zhong has a long history of volunteering, from her successful effort to revitalize the Princeton Club of Western Washington, where she helps get fellow Princeton University alums to help out in the community, to her work with the local chapter of Mathcounts, which holds competitions for middle school kids.
Helping kids express their passion for math is personal for Zhong. Born in China, her family moved to the U.S. when she was 1. They settled in a small town in Florida, where she says she felt isolated in school, and “being the only Asian kid and being a super geek did not help.”
Participating in math competitions was “actually the thing that I found my identity in, being part of that team,” she recalls. “I know the impact it had on my life, so it’s cool to have that impact on someone else’s life and give them that same opportunity.”
That chance to affect others’ lives drives her. She believes helping others “is part of our purpose for being here.”
In her work as a loaned professional, she was touched by a tearful “thank you” from a sick child’s mother at the Ronald McDonald House dinner, a moment she thinks back to every time something seems tough in her own life.
She was also moved by a young man with cerebral palsy who told his story for Summit Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit that trained and provided him with a black lab named Fraser that gave him the independence he never thought he’d have.
Zhong was inspired to make a donation. It was far from her only one. “I might be broke by the end of this campaign — but I think that’s OK,” she says. “I didn’t realize how great the needs were in our very own backyard until I started this program.”
When loaned professional Suveen Reddy speaks to different Microsoft teams, encouraging employees to take part in the campaign, he tells them to “follow their passion” when choosing a cause. He likes to emphasize that even a small effort can make a difference.
He knows. His dedication to the Sankara Eye Foundation grew out of his 2002 trip to India, where a family friend in his grandparents’ rural village had been struggling with severe vision loss. Reddy helped him get a simple surgery that restored his sight and his independence. The cost: $120.
“Obviously, there are many unfortunate people out there, and we should be able to help them,” Reddy says. “It only takes a little effort.”
On loan from his senior program manager role in Microsoft IT, Reddy helps support the technology involved in keeping track of things like how donations are matching up with campaign goals. He’s also helped organize a campus cricket tournament for the campaign.
He says working on an effort that “helps empower people and make the world a better place” is a dream job. “I am loving it,” he says. “Every day of it.”
Visiting local nonprofits has been one of the best parts of the program for loaned professional Suzy DeKay. It’s meant “putting a name and face with who we’re helping as part of the campaign” and has made her aware that some organizations rely on the generosity of Microsoft employees and the company’s match for up to half of their yearly budgets, she says.
The visits have also underscored how precarious daily life is for many.
DeKay saw that in the team’s visit to YouthCare, which was bustling with teens as a nonprofit that provides job training, counseling and other services for homeless youth. She learned that because its shelter has a finite number of beds, whether a teen gets one on any given night is determined by a lottery system.
Though the organization works to find backup services for the unlucky ones, DeKay says, she found the situation heartbreaking.
“Visiting there and everywhere else – it made me want to do more,” she says. “Seeing and getting exposed to everything that’s happening in our community made me realize how much help is needed, and how much more we can do.”
DeKay, who is on loan from the Bing Advertising Group, began volunteering years ago for a nonprofit that holds concerts to raise money for uncompensated care and research at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
But like many busy people, she starting having more difficulty finding any time she could give – especially after having a baby two years ago. So she began looking for volunteer opportunities through Microsoft.
Last year, she mentored a 16-year-old through Girls Who Code, for which Microsoft hosts a summer immersion program on campus, and was grateful to be able to volunteer for a cause she cared about on her lunch break. Earlier this year, she applied to be a loaned professional and was thrilled she got the chance to join such a compassionate and monumental effort.
“I think we’re so lucky to work for a company that not only invests in the employees, but also the causes we care about,” DeKay says. “It’s hard to believe we get to do something like this.”
Brown says sharing what they’ve seen and experienced, such as his encounter with the young transplant patient, helps illustrate how much help is needed. But getting Microsoft employees to participate has been “an easy sell,” he says, and helping run the Employee Giving Campaign has been an incredible opportunity.
“I’m really honored to be a part of it,” he says. “My life’s never going to be the same.”
Lead photo: Loaned professionals Suzy DeKay, David Ursino, Jennifer Emkjer, Yan Zhong and Dave Barnett sort medical supplies for overseas hospitals and clinics that need them. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)