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At IBM, corporate philanthropy focuses on the idea that companies should move beyond "spare change to real change," said Stanley Litow, IBM vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM's Foundation. The idea was advanced by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School, who wrote in 1999 of the need for companies to do more than throw money at social problems and instead take nontraditional approaches that lead to sustainable change in communities.
"A company should think about what it has that it could contribute that is more valuable than its excess cash," Litow said. "For IBM, that's our innovation, our technology and our talent."
For example, IBM created its World Community Grid, which pools surplus processing power from individual computers into a massive computing system that is used for scientific research such as studies on malaria or clean water. The company also established a program called Reading Companion, which uses IBM voice-recognition technology to help children and adults learn to read. Last year, it helped teach 212,000 children, Litow said.
Both projects are examples of devoting resources to finding long-term solutions to large-scale problems, Litow said. "Investing in this isn't checkbook philanthropy."
IBM also has programs to get its employees involved in philanthropic efforts, which Litow said helps IBM build their skills and retain top talent. The Corporate Service Corps, for example, sends teams of top leaders in the company to countries around the world to address social and economic problems. One team came up with a management structure behind a program to provide free health care to poor women and children in a province in Nigeria. The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge teams IBM employees to work on urban problems such as services for disadvantaged youth in North Carolina and a transportation strategy in Nairobi. Last year, IBM employees donated 3.2 million hours worldwide.
"Money from a corporation or private foundation is never going to be enough to solve a problem," said Litow, who previously served as deputy chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. "What people really need is the best talent, skills and innovation to be able to think in a serious way about a sustainable, long-term approach to a problem."
Kathleen McCarthy, founding director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (CPCS) -- part of the Graduate Center of The City University of New York -- said philanthropy in the IT sector runs from the "more plain vanilla" older foundations like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that focus on giving money to leading educational and cultural institutions to Google's cutting-edge efforts to help educate girls in developing countries. Gates also has taken public-private partnerships to a new level in philanthropy, she said.
"You have this whole kaleidoscope of activities that are all over the map," McCarthy said. Innovation is something you'd expect from IT leaders, she added.
"Because they reach into folks' homes in ways earlier businesses didn't, you'd expect them to come up with something that's different and calibrated to the 21st century," she said.
Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, said philanthropy in the IT industry typically eschews the traditional model of corporate giving in which a company simply throws a check at a nonprofit program. Instead, Intel finds partners that fit with its philosophy and develops programs with them, she said.
"We do almost all our philanthropy with public-private partnerships involving government and educational institutions as well as nonprofits," she said. "The high-tech industry in general is involved in a lot of innovative philanthropic practices."