It’s been awhile since Bill Gates headlined a Microsoft press conference, but he surfaced for an unusual event today at the company’s Redmond headquarters.
Gates joined Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and other dignitaries to announce a milestone in the Microsoft employee giving program, which began 30 years ago after a nudge from Gates’ parents.
The giving program — in which Microsoft matches employee contributions to nonprofit organizations and provides direct corporate gifts — has had a remarkable effect on the Puget Sound region in particular, where most of the employees are located.
Microsoft announced that giving through the program has reached $1 billion in cumulative donations to more than 31,000 non-profit groups. Earlier this month, when the company issued its annual citizenship report, the company said it expected to reach that level by the end of 2012.
Ballmer called it a “mind numbing” milestone and thanked the nonprofit “partners” who leveraged the donations and provided an outlet for “our folks’ incredible desire to change the world.”
Ballmer said that the effects of the giving are seen around the world, and employees “have really stood up in times of crisis” and helped people in more than 200 disasters.
Microsoft matches employee contributions dollar for dollar up to $12,000 per year. For the last five years it has also donated $17 per hour to non-profit groups where its employees have donated at least 10 hours of their time volunteering.
The company’s philanthropy helps attract new employees and introduces newcomers to non-profit organizations in the communities where they’re hired, executives said.
In addition to Gates, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire attended the event, along with a number of former Microsoft executives who have become prominent philanthropists.
“Well, I come back for historical perspective whenever that’s needed,” Gates joked, before recounting how the program began.
Gates said it began with Sunday dinners with his mother and father, who were longtime supporters of United Way and encouraged him to start a giving program.
“In the early days I was a little bit reluctant to distract people from writing code day and night,” he joked.
Eventually, he agreed and decided it was an area where Microsoft could apply “our analytical excellence to that field as well.”
That first year, in 1983, about 200 employees raised $17,000 for non-profit groups. This year the company expects more than 35,000 employees will raise more than $100 million for non-profits around the world.
The $1 billion figure is just for employee donations and matching gifts from the company through its giving program. Total donations since 1983 – including donations of cash, software and services by the company and employees – are more than $6.5 billion.
Additionally, many former employees have gone on to start their own charitable programs and support efforts such as the Microsoft Alumni Foundation.
Over the last three decades, Microsoft and its employees have contributed $460 million to United Way, said Jon Fine, chief executive of United Way of King County.
“The impact of all that giving is almost incalculable,” Fine said.
Fine said the company’s “culture of generosity” has radiated beyond the campus and raised the bar for what it means to be a responsible corporation.
“This is an area where I feel Microsoft continues to set the pace for the entire technology sector,” said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith, who oversees the company’s philanthropic programs.
Gregoire noted that contributions to Washington nonprofits were more than $50 million last year and more than $520 million over the life of the program, an apt number considering the roadway that connects Microsoft’s campus to Seattle.
The giving reflects “something that I think is about the values of Washington state,” she said.
Gregoire said she found evidence of Microsoft employees’ largesse on a recent trip to Hyderabad, India. She visited with employees there whose giving program this year supported the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute, a nonprofit that provides eye care and rehabilitation. She also met a 1-year-old girl who was blind until she received corneal transplants from the institute.
“It was one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life,” she said. “That’s what you have done, that’s what it means on the ground to the people who have benefited from your generosity.”
Gates and Ballmer praised the milestone as the company was simultaneously delivering a particularly tough earnings report that pulled Microsoft stock down more than 2 percent in after-hours trading.
The earnings weren’t mentioned, but Ballmer cast things in a positive light, saying the charitable milestone will be remembered along with the company’s other big accomplishments this year, including the launch of Windows 8 next week.
Among the attendees was Jeff Raikes, a former Microsoft president who is now chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has so far granted more than $23 billion.
“Cleary this is an incredible milestone … but it really symbolizes the spirit of the company,” Raikes said.