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THE CUTTING EDGE

Take Our PCs--Please

Notoriously Stingy Tech Firms Are Finding Ways to Help the Needy While Helping Themselves

December 16, 1996|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With technology companies sitting on piles of cash and minting new millionaires by the day, you might expect this holiday season to be a good one for charities.

Bah, humbug!

When it comes to producing philanthropists, the computer revolution--with the prominent exception of a couple of older companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard--has been a dud. Tech companies and their newly rich executives are notorious tightwads who do little in the way of helping out the less fortunate.

By one estimate, computer companies are giving half the percentage of profits to charity that they did even five years ago. And the San Jose area, the home of Silicon Valley, was rated worst in terms of individual contributions to charity as a proportion of income in a 1994 survey of 50 major metropolitan areas by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But these digital-era Scrooges may yet prove important to a nonprofit sector increasingly squeezed between government cutbacks and rising demand for social services. Although they aren't about to unleash a flood of money, many Information Age companies, in a fit of enlightened self-interest, are beginning to offer gifts that could prove to be just as valuable: technical skills, free technology and a results-oriented approach to getting things done.

Whereas 19th century industrialists promoted humanitarian efforts to improve corporate images sullied by environmental pollution and mistreatment of workers, high-tech companies today are beginning to see philanthropy as a way to push technology farther and faster into a sometimes reluctant society.

Microsoft was ranked as the top U.S. corporation for gifts to charities last year, according to the newsletter Corporate Giving Watch. But of its $73.2 million in contributions, only 15% was in the form of cash--the rest was software that was valued at the retail price but cost the company almost nothing to produce.

That doesn't mean the donations are necessarily less useful. Microsoft has launched an ambitious program to offer Internet access to a broader segment of the population by wiring public libraries and connecting them to the Internet. Sun Microsystems is doing the same with schools. Intel is contributing equipment and technical help to 100 learning centers that are working to expand computer use among seniors.

Like most corporations engaged in philanthropy, these companies hope to see their social standing improve.

These efforts may also help achieve strategic objectives. Sun wants to be seen as the leader of an "open" alternative to Microsoft technology. Microsoft needs to be seen as an important national asset if it is to continue to be allowed to hire foreign nationals at will and avoid closer scrutiny by antitrust regulators. Intel can keep growing only if new, sometimes untapped segments of society such as the elderly begin to see the advantages of using personal computers.

More broadly, though, technology companies have begun to recognize the obvious: that their long-term success depends on better schools and a more computer literate consumer. At the same time, they must preempt possible public resentment over technologies that often eliminate jobs and exacerbate the gap between society's haves and have-nots.

"Given the industry's broad stake in education, there is an argument for massive investments--read: massive philanthropy--in the ability [of society] to use computers," said Kirk Hanson, corporate ethics professor at the Stanford School of Business. "There is a sense that technology is responsible for putting people out of work."

If tech companies fail to deal with such issues as worker retraining and technology access for the disadvantaged, they could find themselves facing more radical proposals for dealing with the problems spawned by the high-tech economy.

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For example, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, recommends in a recent book that computers and other technology be taxed and the money funneled to the nonprofit sector to help society deal with issues of social dislocation.

By partnering with nonprofits, argues Craig Smith, president of the Seattle-based think tank Corporate Citizen, high-tech companies can bring technology to society in a less threatening way and accelerate its adoption.

"The computer companies are asking us to make major changes in our culture," Smith said. "They are looking for relationships [with nonprofits] that will pave the way for these new kinds of behavior."

Take, for example, the effort by the Starbright Foundation, chaired by Stephen Spielberg, to connect children's hospitals across the country with broad-band networks so bed-bound kids can communicate and play computer games with each other.

Technology companies such as Intel leaped at the opportunity to participate.

"The image of technology is cold and hard-edged," said Tracy Koon, who handles grant requests at Intel. "This humanizes technology."

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