Building Microsoft’s ‘Stealth’ CSR Program–with Dan Bross

Microsoft has something up its sleeve.

A roiling, innovative and effective CSR strategy, which, even among CSR wonks, has gone largely unnoticed.

Over the past weeks I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several executives in Redmond, Washington, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, helping to shape Microsoft’s corporate citizenship strategy.  Admittedly, I went into these conversations expecting an exchange drenched in PR-ese and trumped up sound bites. Instead, I got an inside look at how Microsoft uses technology and partnerships (with global NGOs, governments, vendors and employees) to drive social change that left me impressed and eager to share some of Microsoft’s techniques.

When I spoke with Dan Bross, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship, I had two immediate questions:

1) Why hasn’t Microsoft been more vocal about its citizenship programs (from skills training for unemployed Americans to mobile banking in Africa to public cellphone booths in Haiti)? And,

2) What can other companies learn from Dan’s experience building Microsoft’s corporate citizenship program?

Microsoft formalized its corporate citizenship initiative in 2003. Over the past seven years Dan says, “We have chosen to use resources to develop and improve programs, rather than talking about them.”  Fair enough. It’s a sound strategy to build the community clinic before cutting the ribbon. Based on my conversations and recent media, it seems it’s ribbon-cutting time as Microsoft looks to raise awareness for its programs and serve as a guide for other companies.

So what can you and I learn from Dan’s experience forming Microsoft’s corporate citizenship strategy?

  • Understand your company’s values, mission, products and services.
    “Very clearly and early on, we determined that we could make the biggest difference in addressing societal challenges in the areas of skills training, workforce development and education,” says Dan.
  • Tap appropriate internal stakeholders to co-create the program.
    Since Microsoft’s efforts would focus on skills training, workforce development and education, Dan reached out to colleagues in community affairs and the education and partner groups (which oversee skills training and work with Microsoft’s 700,000 global business partners, respectively) to provide feedback and insight from their work.
  • Look at opportunities and challenges to determine what to prioritize then develop a timeline.
    Dan and his colleagues developed an annual, two-year and four-year execution plan.
  • Focus on the outcomes.
    Take workforce development. Dan says it’s easy to count the number of people trained or number of downloads of Microsoft’s curriculum under its Elevate America program, “But what those metrics don’t tell us is the outcome associated with the training that someone may take. Did he or she get a job? Was it a better job? How long did he or she keep the job? Did it pay better than the previous job? We need to understand these outcomes so we can improve the program.”  Measurement is tough. Even Microsoft, a company that has a combustible level of combined IQ and resources is partnering with the academic community to look for more effective ways to measure outcomes.
  • Develop citizenship/CSR heads in each office (if applicable).
    Microsoft has citizenship leads in each of its 110 subsidiaries. Based on Microsoft’s global priorities, these leads develop programs that meet the needs of their local communities. Jorge Vega Iracelay, who directs Microsoft’s citizenship initiatives in Argentina, prioritized job creation through skills training and access to computers. Jorge and his team are working with the national governments, more than 100 NGOs and over 300 suppliers to meet their goal of creating 45,000 employment opportunities and bridging the digital divide by bringing computer access to 38 million Argentineans by 2015. Dan says this approach allows for flexibility; headquarters provides the strategic guidelines, but there’s room for each subsidiary to approach local issues uniquely.

Across functions and regions, Dan was able to thread together a comprehensive corporate citizenship program that guides initiatives in 110 countries and touches 85,000 employees. When you look at the breadth of programs that Microsoft has, of which I’ve just named a few, you realize how impressive this task was. Still, Dan admits it wasn’t without its missteps.

“We did not fully appreciate the interest our employees had in this work [when we formed the program] in 2003.  And quite honestly, we did not fully communicate [our citizenship initiatives] as aggressively or as thoroughly as we should have.  Over the past seven years we have devoted increasingly more resources to share how our citizenship work joins with our business goals and objectives.  Now, we regularly hear from employees who aren’t shy about sharing how they think we can be doing a better job with our citizenship efforts.”

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Leave a comment
  1. Jeff Mowatt August 10, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    Yes, we’d been aware of this in the creation of an innovation centre where we operate in Ukraine

    In the strategy paper we delivered to government in 2006, an innovation centre for social enterprise was proposed at the very same location;

    Imagine what could have been achieved working with a pioneering social enterprise.

  2. Olivia Khalili August 10, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Jeff, thanks for sharing these resources. Look forward to checking them out. Has Eastern Europe been bitten by the social-good-competition bug?

  3. mary kuhn August 10, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    Great piece. Nice consolidation of some important ideas to guide CSR.


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