Bruce Brooks, Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft Corp.: Empowering People Through Technology

April 29, 2002
Bruce Brooks, Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft Corp.: Empowering People Through Technology

Over the last two decades, few American companies have been as admired — or feared — as Microsoft. From the company's introduction of the first commercially successful operating system for the personal computer in the 1980s, to its release of Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 in the mid-'90s, to its running antitrust battles with the Justice Department, the Redmond-based software giant has established itself as an icon of America's high-tech prowess and as a fierce competitor that will stop at nothing to extend its dominance of the personal computing environment.

At the same time, the company has quietly moved into the top ranks of America's corporate givers, donating hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and software in an effort to empower people to realize their potential through technology, and is legendary as an incubator of philanthropically minded millionaires who, after years of hard work, dedicate themselves, often creatively, to making the world a better place.

In February, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Bruce Brooks, Microsoft's director of Community Affairs, about the company's giving, the philosophy behind that giving, and the company's future philanthropic plans.

Prior to joining Microsoft in December of 1999, Brooks served as senior vice president for MWW/Savitt, a Seattle-based public relations and public affairs firm, where he managed the firm's operations and advised a wide range of clients on community relations, government affairs, business communication, and corporate giving. From 1995 through 1997, he served as deputy mayor to Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and managed a wide range of municipal issues, including economic development, human services, capital planning, internal administration, and labor relations. Prior to that, he was a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, where he focused on employment and labor law issues for private- and public-sector clients.

Brooks received both his undergraduate degree and his law degree from Harvard University. Among his civic activities, he has served on the boards of the Northwest Area Foundation, the United Way of King County, the Benaroya Hall Music Center, the Seattle Housing Authority, the Legal Aid for Washington Fund, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and Leadership Tomorrow.

Brooks is married to Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based journalist. They have two young sons.

Philanthropy News Digest: What did you do before you joined Microsoft in 1999.

Bruce Brooks: For a number of years after I completed graduate school — eleven, actually — I was a trial lawyer and focused on labor and employment issues for both public- and private-sector clients. During that period, I was also very active in the Seattle nonprofit community, both volunteering and working with our local United Way chapter on public housing and education issues.

Then I left my legal practice and became the deputy mayor of the city of Seattle for three years between 1995 and the end of 1997. In that capacity, I got a chance to look at things like the delivery of social services, economic development issues, and a host of operational issues from the perspective of a public-sector funder. And though I always assumed that I would return to my law practice after I left local politics, it didn't work out that way. As it turned out, the areas of intersection I was seeing between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors involved very compelling issues that I didn't think I'd be able to explore further within the context of a legal practice. And that's something I very much wanted to do.

So instead of returning to my practice, I took a position with a local public affairs and public relations firm, where I spent about half my time running the business — something I thoroughly enjoyed — and half my time advising clients on a range of issues, from government affairs and community relations to corporate giving. And that was the path, unplanned though it was, that led me to Microsoft and my current position as director of community affairs.

PND: How did you hook up with Microsoft? Did the company come knocking on your door?

BB: I think it was serendipity, more than anything. My predecessor in this position, Barbara Dingfield, was someone I had worked with in the community, particularly on the United Way board here in King County. I also knew, from my days in private practice, the person who at the time was Microsoft's senior director of corporate affairs. The summer of 1999, the two of them approached me and asked me whether I would be interested in taking over for Barbara as director of community affairs. Well, after giving some thought to both the direction of my career and the future of the local nonprofit community, I said yes. Not to be trite, but it just seemed like a place and a position from which I could make a difference.

PND: Did you have a personal philosophy in regards to corporate philanthropy when you arrived at Microsoft?

BB: To the extent that I had a philosophy of giving at all when I arrived, I would say it hinged on my sense that corporate philanthropy could not succeed by itself, that it had to be grounded in a willingness to work in partnership with both the public and nonprofit sectors in order to be effective.

I also think I was already trying to think through how you strike a balance between trying to be relatively focused, which improves your chances of having an impact, and the incredible expectations that people have of you when you're a deep-pocketed foundation or corporation. And I guess my own predisposition was to try to strike that balance more toward the side of being focused and having a greater impact.

PND: Is that a different approach than the one Microsoft had been taking in its philanthropy?

BB: I think it was consistent with the path the company was on. You know, Microsoft is a fairly young company. It's only twenty-five years old, and while our giving program and direct Puget Sound area community grants date back to the 1980s, the direct broader corporate philanthropy piece and national initiatives are of more recent vintage, starting in say, the early to mid-90s. I think the company had done a good job thinking about how it could leverage its input to have maximum impact. There already was tremendous effort, for example, being put into the Libraries Online Program and thinking about access to technology in terms of libraries in disadvantaged communities. And there already was a focus on partnering with other organizations and trying to do things, some things at least, over the course of a number of years, as opposed to single-year efforts. So Microsoft was already well down that path by the time I arrived, and my hope is that I've been able to continue to move us down that path.

PND: How much did Microsoft give to charitable causes in 2001?

BB: In fiscal year 2001, which ran from July 1, 2000, through June 30, 2001, Microsoft made contributions of $36.6 million in cash and about $179 million in software.

PND: Was that an increase over the company's giving in 2000?

BB: It represents an increase in cash of about $1.3 million and a slight decrease in the value of donated software. The software side of the equation is partly a function of the requests made by nonprofit organizations, so that number can vary.

PND: Microsoft has a number of charitable programs and initiatives. Can you give us a brief overview of your activities?

BB: Sure. But let me first say that at Microsoft we believe our mission is to empower people to realize their potential through technology. Obviously, that's quite broad. But the way we try to accomplish it is through what I call our four pillars which tie together with other resources and technology that the company has developed to create opportunities for people.

The first pillar is expanding people's access to technology. Within that area, we have a substantial program with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America that we call Club Tech. One of the things we're trying to do with Club Tech is to help all three thousand Boys and Girls Clubs over the course of a five-year period to develop what I like to refer to as meaningful access to technology. We want to help kids who are enrolled in Boys and Girls Clubs programs use technology to expand their opportunities, to expand their horizons and aspirations. And that requires not only software and hardware, but a curriculum and training and a real infusion of technology in every aspect of the clubs' operations. The goal of Club Tech is to integrate technology into everything the clubs do, from homework programs, to arts programs, to leadership development programs, to the organization's traditional recreational programs. In fact, we've just passed a huge milestone related to this effort, with the launch of more than one hundred new club techs throughout the greater Boston area, Florida, and Arizona.

Beyond just youth programs, however, we also think about education, specifically about higher education. When we look around to see who doesn't have good access to technology at the higher education level, it's often institutions like historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges. So we've developed significant relationships with the United Negro College Fund as well as with the thirty-three or thirty-four tribal colleges across the United States to make sure that they have meaningful access to technology and are using it in a way to advance the prospects of their students, their faculty, and their administration.

Lastly, and still in the same category, we continue to work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the Libraries Online initiative, which provides funding and technology systems for libraries throughout the United States, parts of Canada, and a few other countries, most recently in Chile.

Again, these are all things that fall under the rubric of expanding access to technology. But when you look at the individuals and populations we're trying to reach through our initiatives in this area, it becomes clear that another way we can support people and their communities is through the nonprofit sector. Our second pillar involves trying to move beyond charitable donations of software, which we've done for a long time, and think about others ways in which we can help and strengthen nonprofits.

Obviously, a lot of nonprofits need technology assistance. And yet trying to deliver that kind of assistance on a one-to-one basis is a daunting task. So what we've done — at first here in the Seattle area and, now, nationally — is to help start a technical assistance network called NPower. There are two key pieces to the NPower model. One is that, like the organizations it's trying to serve, NPower in Seattle — and now its affiliate chapters — is a nonprofit organization, which gives it a solid understanding of the challenges that nonprofit organizations face in trying to integrate and use technology in their work. As the executive director of NPower Seattle is fond of saying, the work of NPower is mission-driven. It's not about technology for technology's sake; it's about helping nonprofits use technology to advance their mission and better serve their constituents.

"...As a philanthropic proposition, we believe that if nonprofits can derive efficiencies from technology, it will allow them to devote more of their resources to their mission and the communities they serve...."

We think there's a tremendous opportunity in the area of technology to make sure that nonprofits reap the same kinds of benefits, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, that businesses both large and small have realized over the last couple of years. As a philanthropic proposition, we believe that if nonprofits can derive those efficiencies from technology and become more effective, it will allow them to devote more of their scarce resources to their mission and the people and communities they serve. And that's important in our view.

PND: Staying with NPower for a moment, what are your plans for the network going forward?

BB: Our goal over the course of the next five years is to develop another dozen or so NPower organizations around the country. In fact, we recently announced that we're about halfway there and have added six other cities and/or regions as NPower affiliates. They're still in start-up mode, but I can give you a couple examples of the kind of things they're already doing.

PND: Please...

BB: Well, the first NPower affiliate was launched last spring in New York, which means they were more or less up and running on September 11. And in addition to all the other dimensions of that tragedy, there were literally hundreds of nonprofit organizations that were located in the area south of Canal Street that were either displaced or whose operations were disrupted by the attack on the World Trade Center. However, NPower New York was able to quickly hook up with and help many of those nonprofits with things as rudimentary as damage assessment and systems recovery.

Beyond that, there were many nonprofit organizations whose resources and ability to respond were truly stretched by the unprecedented dimensions of the tragedy. And, again, NPower was able to work with some of those organizations to expand their capacities. One example that example that comes to mind is an organization called Safe Horizon, which in the days immediately following the eleventh was designated as a principal conduit of relief resources for victims and their families. But they didn't have a database that was capable of dealing with the volume of requests for assistance that they began to receive almost immediately. So the staff of NPower New York as well as volunteers from Microsoft based in the New York area got together with people from Safe Horizon and quickly created a new database solution that helped them move ahead and function more effectively than they would have been able to otherwise.

That's one example. As I mentioned, the other NPowers are still in start-up mode. But I expect them to be an equally valuable resource — though one hopes never again in the same context — for nonprofit organizations in the cities or regions where they've been established.

PND: Where are or will the new affiliates be located?

BB: The six that were added to the network are NPower New York, NPower Indiana, NPower Michigan, and NPower Portland, in Oregon. In addition, CompuMentor is signing on as an NPower affiliate for the whole San Francisco Bay Area region. And there's an organization in Atlanta called TechBridge that is also signing on as an NPower affiliate.

PND: And the network will eventually comprise approximately a dozen affiliates and locations?

BB: Yes.

PND: How do you see Microsoft's relationship with the NPower Network evolving over the next few years? Is it your expectation that each of the individual affiliates will become completely self-sufficient?

BB: I think built into the NPower model is the recognition that we are operating, in a sense, as a sort of venture partner, providing seed capital, if you will, to the network. Our commitment over the course of the next five years is to provide initial support to get these organizations up and running. At the same time, we also recognize that it's critical for the success of the various NPower affiliates — not just from a financial standpoint, but from an operational and service-delivery standpoint — to have the committed support of the local communities in which they operate.

So the funding we plan to provide, which will probably be in the range of $250,000 per year for each affiliate over, let's say, a three-year period will not, in and of itself, be enough to fund all their needs and expenses. Instead, there will be significant local funding from the outset. Our hope is that, over time, not only will the affiliates be self-sustaining, in no small measure because of that local support as well as the revenue they earn from the services they provide, but that ultimately our support will become less important to them, that they'll be viable and strategically positioned within their communities and will thrive well beyond the end of our five-year program period with the enthusiastic support of those communities.

PND: Will NPower affiliates be free to recommend non-Microsoft technology solutions to their clients?

BB: Absolutely. Again, the work of the NPower network is mission-driven; it's not about technology for technology's sake. So if the answer to a client's need calls for a non-Microsoft solution, the affiliates are certainly free to make those kind of recommendations. By the same token, if the best answer is a Microsoft solution, that's something they're free to recommend, too. We haven't and won't put constraints on them one way or the other.

PND: You mentioned that there were four pillars to your philanthropic strategy....

BB: Indeed I did. The third is a focus on trying to develop a diverse technology workforce. And to the extent that it has been a focus of ours, we've concentrated our efforts on community colleges, because they tend to attract students from every demographic imaginable. You've got students matriculating out of high school, you've got people coming back for job retraining, you've got people that, for the first time in their lives, are exploring or thinking about moving into the technology field. So, for the better part of the last five years, we've had a program in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges that we call Working Connections. The underlying premise of the program has been to connect community colleges with their local business community and, in the process, to figure out what the technology needs of those businesses really are and then to develop a curriculum that trains students to meet those needs, not just today but in the future.

"...If people have the technology tools and the necessary training in the use of those tools, they can succeed for themselves, for their families, and for their communities...."

To date, we've provided almost $50 million in cash and software to sixty-eight community colleges across the United States. And some of the stories that have come out of the program suggest that it's working exactly as we hoped it would. That is to say, people who were not on a technology track in terms of their workforce aspirations before they enrolled in the program were able to get plugged in and find employment that made a profound difference in their lives. We think there's a tremendous opportunity to steer people into the technology workforce, provided they have the tools. If they have the tools and the necessary training in the use of those tools, they can succeed for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.

PND: Does Microsoft provide funding to K-12 schools or organizations that support K-12 education?

BB: We've done some funding in the K-12 space, but mostly in the after-school arena — like the Boys and Girls Clubs initiative I mentioned earlier. Last year, we did launch a pilot program called Washington to Washington in which we connected a school in Washington, D.C., with a school here in the Seattle area, enabling students in the two schools to interact with each other and learn about different issues based on their different life experiences. But for the most part, K-12 is an area that we haven't put a lot of philanthropic dollars into.

PND: Do you provide scholarships?

BB: We do, but mostly at the college and university level. Our scholarships tend to be focused on students in technology-related disciplines, things like computer science and electrical engineering. And we make a real effort to support women and people of color, in keeping with our belief in the importance of a diversified technology workforce.

PND: That sounds like a pretty full plate. Are you collaborating with other technology companies or, for that matter, non-technology companies on any of these initiatives?

BB: You know, we find ourselves at an intersection in a couple of different areas. For example, with the Boys and Girls Club program, we've provided both software and cash for that endeavor, as well as developed a training curriculum for the program. But Boys Girls Clubs of America can have as many hardware partners as it wants. So, in collaboration with Power Up, a program run by AOL, and the Case Foundation, among others, they've been able to put together the hardware piece that allows them to take full advantage of the software and training we're providing.

Similarly, the community colleges participating in the Working Connections program are tapping into local business communities in ways that we, as a company without a direct relationship with most of those businesses, couldn't. So there are a number of opportunities for us to work with other companies and organizations.

I'll give you one more example. I mentioned NPower Indiana earlier. My understanding is that one of their local funders is the United Way of Central Indiana, which received funding from the Lilly Endowment. What's wonderful about that is that not only is a large private foundation indirectly endorsing and supporting the NPower effort with their philanthropic dollars, but it's very much consistent in keeping with a number of things that the Lilly Endowment has tried to do in Indiana. For example, the endowment was the driving force behind a major initiative to create a community foundation in every county in the state. After that was accomplished, however, they looked around and saw that, in many cases, the new community foundations were making grants to recipients who had serious technology needs. So they decided it just made sense to support NPower Indiana through United Way, which, as I said, will serve the entire state. I'd like to think that the synergy between our initiative and Lilly's initiatives will, over a period of years, increase the benefits to Indiana nonprofit organizations and residents beyond what they might have been had either initiative existed by itself.

PND: Earlier, you mentioned the discretionary aspect of your software donation program. How do you respond to critics who say that the principal motivation behind Microsoft's donations of software is to create new customers for its products?

BB: First, I would say that if you look at our contributions to the nonprofit sector, look at them closely, you would see that Microsoft has not pursued them as a market opportunity. Again, we're talking about organizations that tend to have limited resources to begin with and have been some of the last organizations to deploy new PC and information communications technologies. So our donations, while they've been helpful to nonprofits, have not in any way seeded a market. They've been in response to a need. At no point do we say, "Okay, now that you're using our software, here's what you need next."

Secondly, and this is closer to a philosophical argument, we believe technology has real and lasting benefits for organizations, and that nonprofit organizations should not be foreclosed from sharing in those kinds of benefits and opportunities because of financial constraints or limited resources. We really believe there's a need and an opportunity for nonprofits to benefit from technology, and to the extent that we can meet the need, we have a responsibility to do so.

PND: It's common practice within the high-tech industry to value donations of software at full retail price. Do you think that practice overstates the true value of the donation?

BB: No, I don't. First of all, if a nonprofit organization determines that a particular technology will, in fact, help it advance its mission, it almost always has to pay the full retail price for that technology. That's just the reality of doing business in an information economy. So we think retail price is an accurate reflection of the value a nonprofit receives when it gets a software donation.

Secondly, if one looks at how nonprofits report their in-kind donations, not just those from technology companies, it's my understanding that they're required, for tax purposes, to report them at fair-market value. So I think it's both reasonable and fair to value software donations at their full market value.

PND: You've mentioned a number of things — the Club Tech initiative, the Working Connections initiative, the diverse workforce initiative — that could be lumped under the broader rubric of the digital divide. This is a hot topic given the recent U.S. Census Bureau report that suggests the digital divide no longer exists in this country. Are you seeing evidence of that in your work? Is the digital divide yesterday's problem?

"...The digital divide is most certainly real and is still a critical issue. But the reality is, technology literacy is just one of the many skills needed for future success...."

BB: The digital divide is most certainly real and still a very important and critical issue. The Census Bureau report, upon close examination, really only examines the technology aspect of the issue. The reality is, technology literacy is just one of the many skills needed today for future success, although it's a critical piece of the puzzle that often opens up other possibilities.

PND: If the digital divide is more than just a technology issue, if it involves racial, economic, educational, and geographic factors, what is Microsoft doing to address some of those contributing factors?

BB: Well, as you mentioned, we have several initiatives, including Club Tech, Working Connections, the Technology Enriched Community Grant program and our work with institutions such as the United Negro College Fund that all have different goals but that all are aimed at expanding opportunities and empowering people — not only through access to technology, but through sustainable solutions that can have a real and lasting impact on people's lives. That's part of the goal of Club Tech — to utilize technology by integrating it into every aspect of the organization's fabric — from the Clubs' overall management to core programs, including educational enhancement, character and leadership development, the arts, sports and fitness. It's by providing kids with this kind of access to the resources and skills they need that we'll ultimately help them perform better in school and, eventually, at work.

And we're expanding these programs beyond just the U.S. My numbers may be a little off, but at last count we had ninety-five programs running in about sixty-seven countries, and those programs are all oriented to this more comprehensive view of the digital divide and its effect on people and societies. One of the effects, obviously, is the digital divide itself — the fact that people in many, many countries simply don't have access to technology. So we've got a number of programs around the world that are designed to reach out to people who don't have access to technology, whether it's in South Africa or in Europe or in Asia. These programs includes grants of cash, software and in many cases technical training — for the purpose of helping provide those that live in disadvantaged communities with the opportunity to learn and improve their overall IT skills.

We also recognize, as I mentioned earlier, that there is an economic piece that comes along with technology, and so we've had something called the IT Scholars Program in place for several years in places like Europe and the People's Republic of China that tries to help people develop technology skills and get them into the workforce.

And lastly, I would say that, in terms of nonprofits and NGOs worldwide, we've worked very closely with that community. Some of our efforts in this area have their roots in the Kosovo situation, where Microsoft employees worked with the office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to devise a mobile solution that would allow people in the field to register and track refugees. Then, last year, we took the lessons we learned in Kosovo and developed HEART, which stands for Humanitarian Empowerment and Response Through Technology, and applied them to our work with Save the Children and Mercy Corps. In the case of Save the Children, we developed software for a pocket appliance that allowed relief workers at the scene of a disaster to access information about community needs and resources, which in turn allows them to deploy those resources more effectively. And now we're seeing that PDA solution being used in some locations by the UN's World Food Programme. In the case of Mercy Corps, we helped develop an Internet-based database that was implemented in Jakarta to more easily manage the flow of commodities, from donors to recipients, in times of crisis. It's now being adopted by more than half a dozen of the leading non-governmental organizations.

So I think that while our global efforts probably haven't received the kind of publicity that our efforts in the U.S. have, we certainly believe that as a global company there are things we can do to have a similar, and perhaps even greater, impact in countries outside the U.S.

PND: Do you plan to expand your efforts in the international arena over the next few years?

BB: I'd say so. The challenge for us — as it is for many corporate funders — is in how we align our activities with our resources. For example, we have subsidiaries in many countries, but not in every country. In order to have a good working relationship with the NGO community in a given country or community, we like to make sure we have someone on the ground in that country or community. So our programs to date have been sited in close proximity to our subsidiary offices. Having said that, I think we'll find, over time, that there are opportunities to expand our efforts internationally — most likely through organizations we already know and that have multi-country portfolios, organizations like Save the Children, World Vision, the International Youth Foundation, World Links, and Mercy Corps. That could be a way we extend our efforts to countries where we may not have subsidiaries.

PND: How, if at all, did the events of September 11 change Microsoft's approach to grantmaking?

BB: Well, I would say it reinforced a couple of issues for us. For starters, it reinforced the importance of community and the value of working together with people from every walk of life. Community is one of our core corporate values, and we sort of saw that played out very clearly in the wake of September 11. Trying to figure out ways we can work with people on the ground and our own employees and people in need and nonprofit organizations — September 11 just reinforced the importance of all that. So, in addition to the $5 million in cash we committed to relief and recovery efforts, we also committed up to another $5 million in technical resources to help people and organizations get back on their feet.

As part of the fourth pillar of our strategy, building community, we also have a program at Microsoft to match our employees' charitable donations. And we saw a tremendous outpouring of support from our employees in the wake of September 11. It just so happened that the attacks occurred as our annual employee giving campaign was getting underway, and what we saw was, yes, our employees, gave generously to things that were specifically September 11-related. But I think there was an added impetus driven by this idea of community that resulted in a tremendous amount of giving by our employees to organizations across the United States. To put it in perspective, our goal for the campaign — employee contributions and the corporate match — was $22 million. But the final tally was closer to $29 million — one of the best results in the country, as I understand it.

"...I don't think September 11 changes anything at the programmatic level, but it does say to us that the work we are doing is important and that it needs to continue...."

I don't think September 11 changes anything at the programmatic level, in terms of the areas I mentioned to you, but it does say to us that the work we are doing is important, that it needs to continue, and that we will work harder and smarter to realize even better results in the future.

PND: What is it about the culture at Microsoft that inspires so many of its employees to dedicate themselves to charitable causes?

BB: One of the most gratifying aspects of our business is the opportunity to share our resources and expertise with people around the world. Microsoft has a strong culture of innovation, and that innovative culture combined with a corporate mission of empowering people through the use of technology naturally supports and fosters a climate of philanthropy and charitable giving.

PND: Should we expect to see any new partnerships or announcements from your office in the coming year?

BB: Probably. We're continually looking for innovation in the nonprofit sector and in achieving the outcomes we believe are important for people in the areas I've mentioned — access to technology, strengthening the nonprofit sector, and developing a diverse technology workforce. And as we see innovation in the sector, we'd like to be associated with it.

PND: A final question. Where can people go to learn more about your programs?

BB: They should go to our Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/giving,), which offers lots of good information about what we're doing, including updated guidelines and our newest Giving Report. And perhaps it will encourage them to think about other things we could or should be doing.

PND: Well, that will have to be it for now. Thanks so much, for your time this morning, and best of luck with your programs and initiatives.

BB: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts interviewed Bruce Brooks by phone in February and followed up with him by e-mail in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@fdncenter.org.