|CSR Europe News|
Empowering communities - focus on community investment
Despite the tough economic climate, companies should not cut back on their community investment programmes in an effort to save costs, says Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Microsoft Community Affairs. CSR Europe spoke to Mr Badshah about what makes a successful community investment strategy.
"The economic slowdown can lead to a vicious circle - community investment budgets are being cut while the need increases. But the crisis can also be an opportunity for companies to evaluate their activities and focus their efforts in areas where they can make the most impact," Badshah says.
For Microsoft, cutting back on community investment is not an option. "Our community investment activity is linked to our core competences and focuses very specifically on areas where we know information and communications technology and software can make a difference," Badshah says. "Our challenge is to continue strengthening this focus and step up our efforts."
Microsoft recently conducted a benchmarking study with a group of international companies to look at innovative approaches to community investment and the challenges that companies face when implementing community investment programmes.
In cooperation with Good Company, a UK-based CSR consultancy, Microsoft also arranged a follow-up meeting with companies interested in the topic. Based on this pilot session, Microsoft hopes to continue to reach out to other companies and build a network of expertise on community investment.
"The project attracted a lot of interest from companies. What was interesting was the willingness of the participants to share not only the successes but also some of the challenges they face," Badshah says.
According to the study, one of key challenges for companies is to ensure that their community investment activities are strategically directed and effectively implemented in a way that supports the company's wider responsible business strategy.
The study found three overall themes that characterise the best community investment programmes:
Community investment clearly cannot replace other aspects of CSR - integrating social and environmental considerations in the company's business processes and stakeholder interaction. However, community investment does have "a legitimate and important role within responsible business, bringing the unique competences of a company to bear on issues affecting the community in which it operates," the study concludes.
Extending access to IT
Microsoft has over the past five years sharpened its community investment strategy and brought several complementary initiatives under one roof.
The broad Unlimited Potential programme aims at promoting digital inclusion, helping people access affordable technology and building up the technology capacity of NGOs. This is done through financial grants, software donations, curriculum donations and employee volunteering.
In terms of both scope and value, Unlimited Potential is among the most extensive community investment programmes globally. In 2007, Microsoft donated $68 million in cash and $331 million in software to non-profits around the world in 2007. The company was recently included in the top ten list of America's Most Generous Corporations compiled by Forbes.
The cornerstone of Unlimited Potential is the Community Technology Skills Programme, which provides ICT training and tools that foster social and economic opportunities. It currently supports 40,000 community technology centres in cooperation with more than 1,000 community partners in 102, and has reached 117 million people to date.
A key objective of Microsoft's community investment efforts is to enhance the capabilities of non-profit organisations to better manage their operations and serve their clients by providing technology, expertise and resources.
"In helping NGOs we see a large multiplier effect. By bringing in new perspectives on technology, we can help non-profit organisations to serve their clients in a far more effective way," Akhtar Badshah says.
Last July, Microsoft launched the NGO Connection, an online resource designed to assist NGOs to more efficiently use technology to achieve their goals as well as to encourage networking and coordination of NGO resources across the world.
Other technology companies also use their expertise, products and services in their community investment work.
IBM's global volunteering programme, On Demand Community, is a website that helps employees take their skills and support the local community. The On Demand Community Grants scheme donates cash or technology to causes for which employees volunteer.
HP's Technology for Teaching programme, now in its fourth year, provides funding to bring technology into classrooms to improve teaching and make lessons more exciting and engaging. HP donates products and cash and provides technical and professional development support to educational institutions, with a special focus on underserved communities.
Vodafone's flagship programme is its Global Partners for Emergency Communications, with the UN World Food Programme and the UN Foundation. The programme was launched in 2007 to explore the use of ICT in emergency response programmes.
The business case for community investment varies according to the nature of the business and its particular challenges. For instance, for extractive industries community investment forms a key part of their ability to operate in a given area. For consumer-driven industries, the business case tends to centre on building reputation and trust.
Procter & Gamble's Live, Learn and Thrive initiative includes group-wide programmes and brand-led cause-related marketing campaigns. The initiative focuses on improving the lives of children aged 0 to 13 through health, education and skills development, for example through activities such as the Children's Safe Drinking Water programme and volunteer support of humanitarian efforts and social causes.
The Coca-Cola Company concentrates its community support through the Coca-Cola Foundation in three distinct areas: water stewardship, fitness and active lifestyles, and sustainable packaging (e.g. recycling). In addition to the global priorities, local operating groups support educational initiatives and HIV/AIDS initiatives.
For many companies across sectors, the potential of community investment programmes to attract, retain and develop staff is a large part of the business case.
In Ireland, Intel launched the Intel Involved programme to encourage employees volunteer their time to a wide range of community projects. In addition to the concrete benefits for the local community, Intel's commitment strengthens its employees' perception of the company as a 'Great Place to Work' - one of Intel's values.
Companies also increasingly see employee engagement in community investment as an important component of skills and personal development.
IBM's Corporate Service Corps programme brings together small teams of employees to spend a month abroad working on a project with a small business of NGO, with the aim of developing leadership skills while addressing socio-economic challenges in emerging markets.
At Microsoft, the Human Resources Leadership Development programme allows teams of Microsoft executives to take on community challenges posed by three NGOs. This activity is seen as a way of developing business skills such as strategic planning and problem solving in a new setting.
Many companies see growing potential in linking their community investment work to their focus on innovation.
Microsoft's Unlimited Potential theme encompasses both community activities aimed at enhancing the social and economic opportunities of underserved communities, and a business division which is looking at developing effective, relevant, affordable and accessible products that target consumers at the middle and the bottom of the income pyramid.
The different approaches foster innovation within the company, and together they shape the company's overall approach to corporate citizenship.
"Our philanthropic efforts are closely tied to business. We equate philantropy with community investment, not with charity. It's about empowering people," Akhtar Badshah says.
For Badshah, the work of the philanthropic arm of the company plays a key role in what Microsoft is all about: harnessing the magic of software.
"We don't sell the products but we do sell the company - its overall issues, vision and values. We represent not only what the company is required to do or what it is responsible to do but what it aspires to do," Badshah says.