Microsoft / Nils Geylen

January 20, 2016; Tech News Today

There has traditionally been a grey line between marketing and corporate philanthropy, but big tech companies are often accused of using their philanthropy as a wedge into emerging markets. Thus, the big announcement this week from Microsoft this week at the World Economic Forum that the company plans to donate $1 billion of technology services to nonprofits, NGOs, and university researchers raises an oft-asked question: Is this philanthropy, or part of Microsoft’s quest to dominate new markets?

The company’s new branch, Microsoft Philanthropies, aims to dole out its next-generation software and cloud computing tools to reach 70,000 organizations globally over the next three years. Donated services will include CRM Online, Microsoft Azure, Enterprise Mobility Suite, and other cloud computing services to help nonprofit organizations effectively sustain relationships with their donors and beneficiaries.

The concept behind this new initiative is to allow nonprofits to put the same technological tools to use that businesses are using to store and analyze large quantities of data without breaking the bank.

“It’s important that we enable the nonprofit community to make the transition to the cloud services era,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer explained to the New York Times.

Of course, there are organizations out there serving rural and underprivileged communities that need far more than complimentary technology services to implement Microsoft’s new tools; they also need support to build the infrastructure to even have the digital capacity to participate. Microsoft explains in its blog that its philanthropic branch has plans to build on this work to reach impoverished areas of the world, such as partnering with the Mawingu Project through the TV White Spaces endeavor that is providing low-cost connectivity to rural Kenya.

The criticism that has emerged around this trend from giant tech companies includes the charge that they are donating their services to collect data and create dependencies. In particular, Microsoft has come under fire recently for taking advantage of white spaces on TV frequencies in India for connectivity without paying any fee, and is facing pushback from the Indian government. Is Microsoft pushing this philanthropic venture forward for its own benefit as well? It’s very likely that there’s more than goodwill in play.—Aine Creedon