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YouthSpark and the Evolution of a Corporate Philanthropy Program
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With a strong culture of giving instilled by Microsoft’s cofounders, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, corporate citizenship and philanthropy have always been a part of our DNA. With the founders’ involvement more than 30 years ago, Microsoft started an employee matching gifts program, which so far has raised more than $1 billion.

Fast-forward to the start of the new millennium, when Microsoft was just 25 years old. We were already investing in a wide range of corporate citizenship projects around the world. Each project was making an impact, but the efforts were decentralized and not able to take full advantage of Microsoft’s broad expertise, acumen, and resources.

To expand the effectiveness of these initiatives, we began exploring how to unite our efforts around a central strategy and audience and to align Microsoft’s corporate giving programs more effectively around the company’s core competencies. At the time, the international technology community was becoming increasingly aware that simply providing access to technology, or bridging the “digital divide,” was not enough. Beyond learning to use computers and the Internet, people needed the knowledge to apply those skills in ways that were relevant to their lives and economic needs.

We were adamant then, and still are today, that technology in itself is not a means to an end but a tool. If we could create an approach for our corporate philanthropy that focused on teaching technology skills that people could apply to improve their own communities, we felt we could begin driving real and lasting change. Aligning our philanthropic efforts to reach more specific goals also would allow Microsoft to respond more effectively to local leaders’ expectations and needs.

In 2003, Microsoft announced the first round of grants of a new global initiative, Microsoft Unlimited Potential (UP), which donated cash and software to 82 nonprofit organizations around the world. UP focused on providing people of all ages and abilities with free or low-cost access to technology skills training that enabled them to develop job-related technology skills, explore new careers, further their education, and become more connected in their community. Microsoft invested more than $80 million in cash and software grants during the first 12 months of the program. Ultimately, UP donated more than $400 million in cash and software to establish 70,000 community technology learning centers in at least 100 countries, working in partnership with more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations.

Over its decade of existence, the key to UP’s strength has been its unified, strategic approach that has enabled people to succeed using technology. UP gave underserved rural and urban communities access to information technology (IT) for the first time. Where an Internet connection was available, communities leveraged this access for both economic and personal benefit. Many used the Internet to obtain market prices for their products or to sell their art and crafts outside their communities. Women were learning to use IT as an empowerment tool or to interact in new ways with their children, some of whom were learning to use computers and the Internet at school. Studies from the University of Washington detail how, in Europe, immigrant women were trained and empowered through the access to information the UP centers provided. In Asia, women, girls, and boys rescued from trafficking operations were able to train through our UP centers and then work from the safety of their homes, earning an income doing such things as designing business cards and letterheads for small companies. In Australia, the aboriginal community was able to preserve its traditions by linking elders to the younger generation through technology. We saw that people in underserved communities around the globe were using IT to gain social and economic benefits in ways we never imagined. As we had hoped, access to technology and the Internet was opening up a whole new world of information and opportunity.

One key lesson from UP was that we could help people and communities even more effectively if we structured our work to align with their core business objectives and competencies. This understanding helped us become more effective at running programs and communicating our objectives and outcomes to communities, governments, schools, and other constituencies.


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