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Microsoft employees transform lives and strengthen communities in biggest year yet for charitable giving

Jill Herczog’s daughter was 7 when the symptoms began. The second-grader started having seizures and soon was struggling with her schoolwork. She no longer knew her multiplication tables. She grew taller but only got thinner, and numerous doctor visits couldn’t pinpoint a reason for her alarming decline.

“She knew something was wrong, and we knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know what it was,” recalls Herczog, director of retail stores for Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities. “It was a very scary time for us.”

The day Herczog’s daughter was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease changed everything. It set her on a path back to health and inspired Herczog to spend the last 13 years supporting life-saving research and helping families who are struggling with the devastating disease — efforts made even more powerful through Microsoft’s Employee Giving Program.

Microsoft employees raised a record $125 million last year for nonprofits around the globe, the company announced Wednesday. It was the greatest year-over-year increase ever — and the fifth year in a row that employees raised more than $100 million. The participation rate hit an all-time high, at 71 percent, as employees donated more time, talent and money to help address the local and global causes they care about most.

“Microsoft was built on the idea of creating positive change in the world, which is something we all continue to aspire to achieve,” says Mary Snapp, head of Microsoft Philanthropies. “Every year, our employees challenge each other to help transform lives and communities by supporting causes from human services and education to civic programs, the arts and the environment.”

Jill Herczog, director of retail stores for Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities, supports research for mitochondrial disease and helps families affected by it, as hers is. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Microsoft doubles the impact of every donation employees make to the causes of their choice, matching each gift. It also contributes $25 dollars for every hour employees volunteer their time. Employee generosity is now empowering more than 18,000 nonprofits and the people they serve.

“Whether an employee starts a fundraising effort at Seattle Children’s Hospital or lends technical skills to a neighborhood nonprofit, or anything in between, creating a personal connection to a cause can be a transformative experience,” Snapp says. “These individual efforts are critical to the success of our program and can scale our efforts to bring about real and lasting change.”

For Herczog, giving back is personal. After two years of not knowing what was ailing her daughter or how grave the situation might become, Seattle Children’s, which isn’t far from her family’s home, happened to hire mitochondrial specialist Russ Saneto.

The doctor diagnosed the difficult-to-identify disease and prescribed a regimen of three anti-oxidants — about 25 vitamin pills a day — to counter damage from defects in the girl’s mitochondria, which power the body’s cells. The treatment worked and the girl started improving almost immediately.

Herczog cofounded the Mitochondrial Research Guild in 2003, in part because she knows not all families are as fortunate. The disease can attack different organs in the body, leading to deafness, blindness, muscle weakness and an array of potentially deadly problems.

The guild, one of 450 that support Seattle Children’s and its patients, promotes research for the disease, raises awareness and supports a team of scientists trying to improve the quality of life for children who have it.

“For me to be able to help these other families, even in just a little way, to make things better for their children as they’re going through this — it just means a lot to me and my family,” Herczog says.

The greatest impact of the guild’s work is something that brings her to tears just thinking about: Helping save lives. Guild fundraising helped fund Saneto’s support staff in a clinical trial for a promising drug. Guild funding also supports research by Drs. Phil Morgan, Marge Sedensky and Sihoun Hahn to find better treatments and cures for mitochondrial diseases.

Herczog has donated thousands of dollars and hours to the cause, all matched by contributions from Microsoft. The guild has made a big impact on mitochondrial disease research, Saneto says, and it “never would have gotten off the ground” without the support of Herczog and Microsoft.

“Jill is sort of the linchpin that everything hung on,” Saneto says. “She’s got a bulldog’s spirit but an angel’s heart.”

Drs. Phil Morgan and Marge Sedensky, principal investigators at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, study how mitochondria function in Morgan’s lab. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

On most weekday mornings, another dedicated Microsoft volunteer starts his day using Skype to teach computer science to teens in a small Eastern Washington farm town. Juan Lema, a Microsoft HoloLens software engineer, specifically sought out a way to help kids in an area like Quincy, where the high school serves a large percentage of low-income and minority families, including many with Latino roots like himself.

He and Silvia Doomra, an Azure SQL Database program manager, spent two months training for the volunteer effort last summer and started teaching the daily first-period class in September. At first, students didn’t take it seriously. But slowly, their attitudes began to change.

“After a few weeks, they realized we were serious about this. They started to see why this was a good thing for them, and the kind of opportunities this would open,” Lema says. “Now when they go to class, they are eager to learn.”

The class, part of Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), a Microsoft YouthSpark program, is now in its second semester. Microsoft donates $25 for every hour that Lema and Doomra spend preparing lessons, teaching, reviewing assignments and grading exams — money Quincy High School can use to upgrade its technology or address other pressing needs.

Lema, who emigrated from Peru when he was a teen, sees the students get excited about what they’re learning. He thinks they’re beginning to see that no matter what their situation is at home, their futures are wide open.

“The basic concepts of computer science can be applied to any aspect of life,” Lema says. “It’s about problem solving. And for kids who know they can tackle any problem by splitting it into smaller pieces and then taking care of each one — it’s a huge advantage, and a huge boost to their self-esteem.”

Juan Lema says it’s rewarding to see the progress students are making in a computer science course he teaches via Skype. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Employee giving benefits a wide variety of other nonprofits in Microsoft’s home state of Washington; employees volunteered more than 340,000 hours for these local charities last year alone and gave them more than $62 million.

Some of these efforts help strengthen the communities themselves by supporting civic organizations such as the Washington YMCA Youth & Government program, which is based on the idea that democracy must be learned by each generation.

The program helps teens develop the skills they need to become tomorrow’s leaders as they discuss potential solutions for a wide variety of public issues, from neighborhood sidewalk concerns to nationwide health care.

Mary Pryor, a teacher in Dayton, Washington, says higher education can seem out of reach for many high school students living on the state’s more rural east side. The fact that nearly all of the program’s participants have gone on to attend college helps show its “long-reaching impact on the lives of many young people,” she says.

Sydney Kleingartner, a student from Olympia, Washington, credits Microsoft for making the “life-changing experience” that she had in the program possible.

“Youth and Government gives me confidence. It has presented me the opportunity to pursue my dreams, to meet some of the best people I have ever known, and to shamelessly be the person I truly am,” she says. “Because of this program, I am a leader. I have the potential to be a world-changer.”

High school student Sydney Kleingartner makes closing remarks during the closing session of the 68th YMCA Youth Legislature.
High school student Sydney Kleingartner makes closing remarks during the closing session of the 68th YMCA Youth Legislature.

For many Microsoft employees, one of the best parts of the company’s commitment to giving is being able to choose whatever cause is close to their hearts or has touched their lives.

David Jones appreciates the arts not just for the experiences they provide, but for their power. He knows music can help people with neurological disorders, and he says motion — in the form of dance — is vital to staying healthy as long as possible for his mother, who has Parkinson’s disease.

So Jones, an executive producer and principal program manager for the Microsoft Office Envisioning team, happily agreed to help ArtsFund create a new Excel-based system to improve the nonprofit’s way of evaluating arts organizations to determine how much funding to provide them each year. ArtsFund plays an important role in the Seattle region’s nonprofit arts sector, raising money and providing grants to visual arts, theater and music organizations.

“ArtsFund is an integral part of what makes our arts community thrive,” Jones says. “They do amazing work.”

ArtsFund President and CEO Mari Horita turned to Jones, a longtime friend who had worked on the Excel team, for help updating the nonprofit’s existing technology about two years ago. Jones offered to design “the world’s greatest Excel-based allocations platform,” as Horita recalls it — and devoted hours of his own time to do just that.

ArtsFund leaders will use the new system when they start handing out grants this spring, a process they expect to become much more efficient and transparent.

“To have something like this — which is state-of-the-art and would cost far more than we could ever justify spending on it — to carry out this really important program of allocations is really invaluable,” Horita says. “It helps us make sure we’re staying current with technology, which is so difficult for nonprofits to do.”

Jones says he was grateful for the chance to do something he enjoys to achieve something good, and then “be able to double down on that goodness” with Microsoft’s corresponding donations to ArtsFund.

“These organizations don’t have a lot of money, so it’s great to be able to support them in a way that’s easy for us, and yet makes such a huge difference to them,” he says.

Horita says she “can’t say enough” about Microsoft’s commitment to ArtsFund, as well as the difference the company makes much more broadly.

“The whole philosophy of philanthropy in the company and everyone I’ve met there — it’s community-changing,” she says. “This region is a much better place because Microsoft is here, and because it invests the way it does.”

Lead photo: ArtsFund President and CEO Mari Horita stands with David Jones, a Microsoft employee that helped update the nonprofit’s technology, at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)