Technology for the People: What's Microsoft Philanthropies Been Up To?

It may come as a surprise to some, but Microsoft Philanthropies is a fairly new outfit. While the tech giant has a long history of corporate giving, it launched Microsoft Philanthropies less than two years ago with the goal of building a powerful organization within the company to chart more ambitious philanthropy on a worldwide basis. 

As Microsoft president Brad Smith said at the time, the broader mission, here, is to “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” That mission seems rather vague, but this is Microsoft we’re talking about, so unsurprisingly, technology figures prominently in Microsoft Philanthropies' vision of greater empowerment. 

"Technology is a powerful force for improving people's lives," this funder writes. "But right now, half the world does not have access to the benefits and opportunities that technology offers." Microsoft Philanthropies is keen to close these digital gaps. Its work to advance technological inclusion ranges from increasing access to new tech products and services to improving access to digital skills and computer sciences education.  

It's tempting to be cynical about this mission, suspecting that the self-interested goal here is to pave the way for greater use of Microsoft products worldwide. And some elements of that motive may, indeed, be driving the mission of Microsoft Philanthropies, in a general kind of way. As we've discussed before, corporate funders are getting more strategic about their giving, looking to tap their unique assets to do good in the world while also fostering long-term trends that will benefit their bottom line. It makes sense in multiple ways for firms like Microsoft, Salesforce or Google to put technology at their center of their giving. 


So what has this looked like in practice since Microsoft Philanthropies launched in late 2015? Let's take a look at some of its doings since then. 

  • Microsoft committed $1 billion in Azure Cloud services to nonprofits and university researchers around the world for a period of three years. Last we checked, Microsoft was at about the halfway mark, having donated $465 million in cloud services to more than 70,000 organizations so far.
  • Microsoft Philanthropies has provided over $30 million in technology support, supplies, and funding to humanitarian outfits such as Mercy Corps, CARE, International Rescue Committee, and NetHope to support their efforts aiding refugees and displaced populations. We've covered some of this giving as it's happened. 
  • The funder's YouthSpark program provided over $23 million in grants to 58 organizations around the world. YouthSpark provides young people access to quality education and skills training in the computer sciences and technology fields.
  • Its Employee Giving Program raised $142 million which was donated to nearly 19,000 nonprofits and schools in 2016.
  • The TEALS program, which was started in 2009 by Microsoft (the company) and is supported by Microsoft Philanthropies, has helped expand access to computer science education to 225 high schools in the United States.

In her letter looking back at the progress the foundation has made in the past year, corporate vice president of Microsoft Philanthropies, Mary Snapp, wrote, “We’ve entered a period of remarkable technology-driven transformation,” and in the face of all of this innovation, “it’s hard not to imagine a future in which we have addressed humanity’s most pressing challenges in health, education, and the environment.” 

That may be an overstatement. Unfortunately, it's quite easy to imagine a future in which humanity slides backward on these fronts, especially as the effects of climate change, water shortages and overpopulation kick in. But leave it to tech funders to be endlessly optimistic about the humanity's forward march—and how their contributions can speed that march along. While this trait strikes some critics of tech philanthropy as naive, arrogant, or both, we're not as irritated as others. Philanthropy is supposed to be a hopeful enterprise, and the tech world, which has revolutionized how humanity lives in just the past decades, really does know a thing or two about orchestrating large-scale change in the world—even if not all those changes have been positive.

So what’s on deck for the next year or two at Microsoft Philanthropies? According to Snapp, Microsoft will continue to support efforts to bridge global technology gaps and digital divides. The foundation is also increasing its humanitarian aid. Finally, Microsoft Philanthropies is also planning to back projects that increase access to technology for people with disabilities and also new tech training opportunities for in-demand jobs that do not require a four-year degree, but which do require some education beyond high school.