Tech’s Drive For Social Responsibility

High-tech industries are finding innovative ways to contribute to
philanthropic causes around the world. They are also adopting different
strategies to ensure that their giving is sustainable and more impactful
than in the past.

It used to be that corporations would give a large sum of money to charity to burnish its image. But despite the best intentions, even millions
can be a drop in the sea of humanity’s woes. And even assuming the money is
well-spent, charitable contributions are often the first thing to get cut
when times get tough.


Multinationals, particularly in the high-tech sector, have taken a different
approach lately, committing growing amounts of human capital, capital goods
and cash in new and innovative ways.

The reason for giving has also evolved. Multinationals now see corporate ethics and philanthropy as a sound business strategy in the long term.

And organizations that can show immediate returns on their philanthropy
dollars have a better chance of making a bigger difference to people living
in developing economies, noted Brooke Partridge, CEO of Vital Wave
Consulting, which specializes in developing-country markets.

Companies are driven by shareholders’ interests, said Partridge. “Feel-good”
projects are “inherently capped at a proportionally lower level” than they
would otherwise be. “The opportunity to have a real impact in the world is
through financially sustainable investments,” she told
internetnews.com.

“To be able to reach the kind of scale that will make an impact, there has
to be business rigor,” she said.

High-tech companies are leading the way, noted Josh Ruxin, director of
Access Project, a health care project active in 11 different developing
countries. “They see that their future labor markets and consumers are in
other nations, and their philanthropy is more focused there,” he said.

The ‘triple bottom line’

British telecommunications giant BT has pledged over $43 million annually to
charity, because it sees corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a strategic
business decision.

Janet Blake, head of global corporate social responsibility at BT, said the
company believes “making CSR core to our business gives us a competitive
advantage.”

She said that it not only helps the company attract and retain high-level
employees, but is often a deciding factor when bidding for business: “$1.3
billion of new business last year had CSR as part of the pitch… It’s
absolutely a business driver,” she said.

Earlier this year, BT launched a $3 million development partnership with
UNICEF to help bring education, technology and communications skills to
children from poor socio-economic backgrounds in South Africa, Brazil and
China.

She said that BT chose those countries “because they’re needy but also
because they fit with our business strategy.”

That strategy involves what she referred to as a “triple bottom line”; to
normal financial and economic results are added “the community and social
aspects of that business.” She said BT is responding to pressure from
investors and potential business partners to prove its socially-responsible
credentials.

Microsoft  has a number of programs to train
low-skilled workers and help entrepreneurs in developing nations acquire
technology for small amounts of money or on a pay-as-you-go basis, in order
to create a consumer market and labor market for its products and services
down the line.

“We’re using the full resources of Microsoft to help ensure that the
important pipeline of skills, talent, job creation and business creation is
happening in every country,” said Pamela Passman, Microsoft vice president of global
corporate affairs.

Next page: It’s about the people and the money

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People and money well spent

High-tech companies have also begun experimenting with novel approaches to
philanthropy, becoming more directly involved by donating equipment and
subsidizing employees who want to contribute with their labor.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a program to provide students with a
suite of software for $3 through local governments and to provide PCs
directly to needy students.

According to Passman, Microsoft gives away $300 million worth of software
every year, most of it to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other
charities. According to Passman, “we have seen how powerful it is when
private entities, public entities and civil society come together to address
an issue of common concern.”


Other companies contribute their own products or services: GE  donated an X-ray machine worth millions of dollars to a
hospital in Bugesera, one of the poorest areas of Rwanda. Google  contributed free operating systems for 50,000 Rwandese and
formed partnerships to provide technical training across the country,
according to Ruxin.


Cisco  has also created a much-admired Networking
Academy Program to help train high-tech workers around the world.


Ruxin said that several corporations have funded employee missions. “Human
capital is probably the single-most valuable asset on earth. When a company
puts people to addressing a problem, I think that says a lot for the
company.”

Even when it comes to simply contributing money, companies are looking for
ways to make the money more effective.

Blake said that BT is working through UNICEF because the charity understands
local problems; it knows which areas are the most impoverished and which
schools need the most help. “We can target our philanthropy in a way that
will help break the cycle of poverty in those areas,” she said.

The UNICEF program specifically targets girls in very poor regions who have
fallen through the cracks of government spending. It provides
basic needs like water, electricity and a safe environment for children to
learn. “There’s no point in putting in great computers if you don’t have the
basic infrastructure in place,” Blake said.

Last year, Cisco pledged one million dollars for
micro-financing initiatives launched by Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize
Laureate who created micro-credit financing.

The initiatives financed by
Cisco will provide micro-credit loans and educational credits to qualifying
students for entrepreneurial business training, mentoring and micro-credit
start up capital to launch their own tech-related businesses.

Multinationals are increasingly checking to make sure that their corporate
largesse bears fruit.

Ruxin noted that GE sought assurances that Project Access would have the
proper infrastructure and skilled workers in place before agreeing to donate
its X-ray equipment.

“They said, ‘can you make sure that if we make a multi-million investment,
it will be well-utilized?'”

With that kind of attitude, their generosity might even make a difference.

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