Team Rubicon, a disaster-relief organization composed mostly of military veterans and first responders, cleared debris from a Midwestern flood. The group uses Microsoft technology to organize their efforts; last year, the company donated more than $1.4 billion in software and services to nonprofit groups (Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

When Akhtar Badshah joined Microsoft as head of its philanthropic efforts back in 2004, the company’s reputation was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Only two years earlier, the company had reached a legal settlement with the U.S. government, which had accused Microsoft of abusing its monopoly position in the PC market. When the newly hired Badshah represented the company at a conference, every friend he ran into told him the same thing: “You’ve gone to the evil empire.”

Flash forward to the present day, and Microsoft is now considered perhaps the most benign of the giant tech companies and one of the most admired in any industry. What happened? While new leadership at the top is surely a factor, Badshah believes that the less-recognized element is a strong sense of purpose and charitable giving that runs through all levels of the company, he told the audience at From Day One’s recent virtual conference on corporate culture in challenging times. In fact, Badshah has written a book about it: The Purpose Mindset: How Microsoft Inspires Employees & Alumni to Change the World. “I feel that this was the untold story of Microsoft, Bill Gates, and their leadership,” he said. “Yes, they continue to change the world with technology, but they also unleash thousands of people who go out and make a difference, because they got inculcated with purpose through the employee-giving program.”

“We were not seen as being friendly,” Badshah recalled in his From Day One conversation with David Kirkpatrick, founder and editor in chief of Techonomy. Badshah’s mission at Microsoft was to foster greater appreciation of the company’s considerable philanthropic efforts. “The only way to put a human face on what we were doing was not by putting the Microsoft logo [on it], but by getting our employees out into the community to make the change, whether they were investing in the local soccer club, or into the Boys and Girls Club, or the food kitchen. Show up. Be present,” said Badshah, who now runs a consulting practice and teaches at the University of Washington.

What Badshah realized when he took the job is that the seeds of that thinking had already been planted at the company. His wife had joined the company a decade earlier, and they both noticed a seasonal “rumbling of stuff happening” on Microsoft’s main campus, he said. They were “intrigued as to why these young people were running around raising money for different causes.”

Talking about corporate purpose: David Kirkpatrick, editor in chief of Techonomy, and author and educator Akhtar Badshah (Image by From Day One)

The commotion was a team-based competition, inspired in 1983 by Mary Gates, mother of the Microsoft co-founder, who proposed an employee-giving program backed by corporate matching funds. The results were modest at first, with $17,000 raised for the United Way, where she was on the national board of directors. “Bill Gates was fortunate to have parents who were committed into the community,” Badshah said. “They were constantly doing things to improve the community in Seattle, and he got a firsthand seat. He talked about having to go on street corners with a placard because his parents had a cause.”

At first, the Microsoft CEO was disappointed that most of the money was going to universities. “Universities are a machine at raising money from alumni. These [employees] don’t have any time. They got an ask from a university, they wrote a check that got matched,” Badshah said. The company responded by exposing employees to a myriad of causes that deserved support, including environmental groups and social causes such as Planned Parenthood. “Bill understood the importance of this and he ensured that employees could pick their own causes,” Badshah said. “He wanted to make sure that these young people got rooted into the community. And this was the best way he could do it, by incentivizing them to find things in the community that they could contribute to.”

In 2005, under Badshah's watch, the company expanded the charitable program to match volunteer hours with monetary donations, a program called “dollars for doers,” to get people out into the community and not just write checks. Microsoft matches every hour of an employee’s volunteer work with a $25 donation to the nonprofit.

From humble beginnings, Microsoft’s employee-driven giving has become substantial. Currently the company matches employee donations dollar for dollar, up to $15,000. In fiscal year 2020, employees donated $221 million, inclusive of the company match, and volunteered more than 750,000 hours. Microsoft’s database of beneficiaries now includes more than 55,000 nonprofts and schools; in 2019, employee participation reached 77%.

Badshah sees philanthropic work focused on the community as an antidote to Corporate America’s obsession with growth. Especially in the tech industry, “we all focused on a growth mindset. And rightly so. But maybe there is [something] beyond growth, a purpose mindset. And if we could include purpose within our own journey, maybe we put people on the trajectory of making the world a much better place.”

Moderator Kirkpatrick, noting the “bizarrely wholesale transformation that has happened at the company,” asked Badshah what other factors might be in play. Badshah said that the change in leadership, with longtime Microsoft executive Satya Nadella becoming CEO in 2014, brought a shift in the corporate conversation. “Satya came in and listened to the employees and said, ‘Hey, I’m here for you. I want to absorb from you.’ But he was always a skilled businessman, right? He’s not going to just give up and say, ‘OK, this is free-for-all Kumbaya, and let’s do whatever everybody wants to do.’ But the invitation changed the mindset of how people wanted to show up. He embodies it in how he behaves. And that’s a huge shift. And that also gave the energy to Brad [Smith, Microsoft’s president], who always wanted to do this more.” Kirkpatrick agreed: “I think the two of them together are not a sufficiently appreciated powerhouse duo. Brad is possibly the most ethical senior leader in the technology industry.”

A benefit of this purposefulness at Microsoft is that it makes the company a more attractive place to work, Badshah said. “The fact that it created this space for engagement to happen between its employees and its community is critical. It’s critical for companies to adopt because the workplace is where we spend most of our time. In a virtual world, we spend most of our time sitting in a little corner of your room, but that little corner of your room has now been taken over by your workplace. So workplaces are where we actually form these relationships. And if you can create a space where different people from different communities, different walks of life, different statuses, different religions, different colors, come together around certain common things that are not just business-related, you are now creating opportunities to shift the mindset. You're creating these bridging environments. And you're building the muscle that allows all of us to behave and act differently when we show up in our communities. That, to me, is the important role any company can play and should play.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.