Food security, cancer research and more: meet the people making a difference in Seattle and beyond

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Every October since 1983 Microsoft employees have participated in a month of giving ­– a chance to contribute to the community – in the Puget Sound region that Microsoft calls home, and in several of the countries where Microsoft has an office.

“Inspired by his mother, Mary, Bill Gates created Microsoft’s Employee Giving program, which empowered our people to make a difference around the country and around the world, and which continues to grow,” says Karen Bergin, senior director of Employee Engagement. “Year after year, Microsoft employees have demonstrated their passion for giving to address critical issues facing local communities and the world.”

In 2019, 77% of U.S. employees participated in what is called the Giving Campaign, by giving their time and by providing cash donations matched by the company. Here are three stories of the individuals and organizations involved, and the impact the program has on the community.

AfricaTown Community Land Trust

The Greater Seattle area is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. Many of Seattle’s long-standing residents have found themselves priced out of the neighborhoods they once called home. TraeAnna Holiday, who manages community projects and communications at AfricaTown Community Land Trust based in Seattle, has firsthand experience of this. And she’s doing something about it.

“My family suffered from gentrification in 2003,” she says. “We were from the Central District and had to move out to Federal Way.” The Central District is a neighborhood in Seattle and Federal Way is a city to the south of Seattle.

The land trust describes itself as being “here for outcome, not income.” Its mission is to acquire land and developments within Black and African American communities to help protect them from gentrification. And it’s working.

At the corner of 24th Avenue and Union Street in Seattle stands the Liberty Bank building. It was the first Black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest; between 1968 and 1988, it was a lifeline of financial services to a chronically underserved community. The trust was one of the key partners of the redevelopment of the Liberty Bank building, which has been transformed into 115 affordable homes and 2,695 square feet of affordable commercial space.

Liberty Bank Building, before and after.
The Liberty Bank Building, before and after.

“At the heart of it, it’s really about disrupting displacement,” says Holiday.

The trust’s connection with Microsoft’s giving program was nurtured by Nykeesha Griffin, a human resources manager for marketing and consumer business at Microsoft. She also took part in what Microsoft calls its Loaned Professional program, where employees are dedicated to the Microsoft Employee Engagement Team for four months between August and November to help run the company’s annual Employee Giving Campaign.

[READ MORE: Ensuring a healthy community: The need for affordable housing]

In October 2019, she arranged an on-campus volunteer event for employees to hear about the trust’s work. “A lot of Black employees at Microsoft in the Puget Sound area have relocated to the Seattle region from different areas,” Griffin explains.

Asked how giving, and working with the recipient organizations, makes her feel, she answers: “Fulfilled. It makes me fulfilled.”

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

“We know cancer is going to be cured,” says Rich Kaplan, general manager of employee experience and human resources services at Microsoft.

Rich and his wife, Karmann, lead the community outreach and fundraising board for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “I’m blessed to work at Microsoft. And I have a responsibility to help others,” he says.

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Kelly O’Brien is vice president for philanthropy at Fred Hutch and works closely with Karmann and Rich. The connection between Fred Hutch and Microsoft is significant, she says: “Microsoft has employees all over the world and cancer touches people all over the world.

“The other thing that is pretty phenomenal about Microsoft is that philanthropy, employee engagement and volunteerism really are at its core. And I would say that the most significant way employee engagement shows up – beyond the monetary – is the idea that people care so deeply about finding cures for cancer.

[READ MORE: ‘People everywhere are thinking big. Why not us?’ – Brad Smith on the region Microsoft calls home]

“You know, for our scientists, the idea that hundreds, close to thousands, of Microsoft employees choose to make a gift to us, that’s like a shot in the arm, you know? It’s like, ‘We are with you.’”

And they undoubtedly are. “We have a lot of employees at Microsoft working on artificial intelligence,” Kaplan says. “Those employees have a passion around big data and using analytics to partner with Fred Hutch to cure cancer.”

Tilth Alliance

Tilth Alliance grows a variety of fresh produce and helps people learn more about successful gardening and growing. This organization, formerly known as Seattle Tilth, also provides weekly bags of produce to preschools, senior centers and other community groups.

“People can grow just about anything here,” says Chris Hoffer, the Tilth Alliance Community Education Manager. Since the pandemic began, Tilth Alliance has found its role in the community has become even more important, Hoffer explains. “We’re not only providing food for people who are maybe facing food insecurity, but also supporting local farmers who suddenly don’t have the orders from schools and other organizations. We’re helping both groups kind of stay afloat right now.”

The additional financial support that the Giving Campaign provides is of huge benefit to all recipients. The company pays every nonprofit $25 per hour for each hour an employee volunteers.

[READ MORE: $60 million Microsoft investment boosts King County’s efforts to preserve affordable housing in greater Seattle region] 

At Tilth Alliance, there’s also an opportunity to see the difference volunteers make when they get hands-on – literally.

“I’ve been at Tilth now about seven years,” Hoffer says. “I’ve had a chance to work with Microsoft volunteers countless times. They literally get their hands dirty, have some fun, learn about how food grows. If they come for a few hours but there’s 20 or 30 of them, it makes such a big difference when we’re trying to get all the tasks done on the farm.”

Nykeesha Griffin has also supported the work of Tilth Alliance and says that interest in cultivation has grown since the pandemic hit. “I’ve seen new levels of interest around growing your own food and learning about farming,” she says. “You don’t need a whole yard, you know, some people are learning how to do this on their patio, their deck or even indoors.”

Since 1983, the Microsoft Employee Giving Campaign has raised upward of $2 billion for good causes. Karen Bergin says, “Giving has become part of our culture, and one way in which we live our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

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