Meeting Local Needs is Key to Success of Community Investment Programs

Meeting Local Needs is Key to Success of Community Investment Programs

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When Microsoft first began working on strategies to increase access to technology in underserved communities, we assumed that the most successful programs would be those run by nonprofits with a track record of success operating community technology centers and ICT skills training programs.

It was a logical assumption, but, as we learned, not necessarily a correct one. In the eight years since we launched the Community Technology Skills Program, the NGOs that have proven to be the strongest and most effective partners are those with a well-defined social mission and those focused on meeting specific local needs.

What we have seen is that such organizations are better equipped to design programs that prepare people with skills relevant to the local economy. And programs that are locally relevant are more likely to be embraced—and therefore effective—within the community.

In Portugal, for instance, the Technological Centre for the Textile and Clothing Industries (CITEVE) has been working for more than two decades to increase ICT proficiency among textile workers. Faced with intense competition from lower-cost producers in other countries, Portugal’s textile industry has been forced to shed thousands of jobs.

In 2006, Microsoft helped CITEVE establish four technology skills training centers in central and northern Portugal, where the nation’s textile industry is centered. In addition to providing textile workers with the computer skills they need to keep up with the industry’s increasing use of technology, the training program helps displaced workers gain other skills—such as career planning and resume writing—that will help them find jobs in other sectors of the economy.

In the Philippines, we formed a partnership with the Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI) to address another important local issue: helping victims of human trafficking learn skills that can set them on the road to a better life. VFFI operates a network of safe houses for women and children who have been victims of forced labor or sexual exploitation or who are at risk of being victimized. In 2006, Microsoft and VFFI launched a program called Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of Persons through Unlimited Potential (STEP-UP), which combines technology training with other courses in life skills and job skills. In addition to opening new economic and educational opportunities for those who complete the program, the STEP-UP training helps trafficking victims by building their confidence and self-esteem. Since the collaboration began, more than 30,000 individuals have graduated from the STEP-UP program, and Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, president of VFFI, has told us that the program helped participants reintegrate into society and made them more employable.

In Kenya, Microsoft partnered with an NGO called the Informal Sector Business Institute (ISBI) to help shift the country’s informal, cash-based economy—which supports 80 percent of Kenya’s working population—to a more sustainable and stable business model. With support from Microsoft, ISBI launched a 50-hour computer skills training course to complement its classes in accounting, management, marketing, and business English.

In the U.S., one of Microsoft’s key partners is Per Scholas, a nonprofit organization that equips people in underserved communities with the skills necessary to compete for entry-level ICT jobs. Per Scholas offers a tuition-free 15-week computer technician training course that emphasizes hands-on experience. It also teaches students how to repair donated computers, which are then sold at low cost to disadvantaged youth and families in the New York City and Miami areas. More than 2,400 Per Scholas graduates have earned ICT industry-recognized computer technician certifications, and Per Scholas has provided refurbished PCs to more than 72,000 low‑income people.

Each of these organizations – in Portugal, the Philippines, Kenya, and the U.S. – exemplifies the impact that organizations can have meeting local needs with the use of technology and support from companies like Microsoft.

Next week I’ll talk about some of the amazing local community leaders I’ve met, what makes them tick, and what makes them such great partners.

Editor’s note:

This is the second in a series of posts looking at the lessons and insights Microsoft has learned from eight years of investing in community initiatives around the world:

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  • It was a logical starting assumption: that to "do technology," telecenters might be the most desirable grantees. But what if you want to promote employability? Or, support trafficking survivors? As the realization grew (at Microsoft and across the field) that other outcomes were desired and technology needed to play a supporting role, then new grantees came into play. Being open to a changing landscape is critical for donors in international development.

    The case of the trafficking survivors is a good example. When UW researchers visited the Visayan Forum Foundation one of the most striking phenomena was that while these survivors needed "job skills," the need for psychological support was far greater and more immediate. And computer training was being deployed in that way. The curriculum was different, the teaching was different, the emphasis on which applications to learn was different. VFF's creative, effective approach to caring for these young women deployed the computers to help bring traumatized girls out of their shells: cautious smiles, beginning to tell their stories, making friends. We think it's likely that future social scientists will also find evidence of VFF's impact on long term employability.

    It is interesting to think about how "technology" organizations do social work versus how "social workers" do technology.    

    In market terms, donors need to be aware of how their assumptions about what local needs might distort the market for services provided. It is essential that donors carefully plan and listen to ensure that local needs (versus donor needs) drive grant making. In our experience the Community Affairs team deserves credit for being open to these shifts and for being aware of the effects of their policies.  

  • Since 2006, this partnership has been pivotal to improve the skills and labor conversion of around 6000 people, through Information and Communication Technologies,  for the new challenges of the labor market. Either for re-entry in the same sector, or to start a career in new sectors, the training courses designed have helped the trainees to develop their IT skills and have been working mainly as a lever to "grab" other opportunities, since there is a remarkable improvement in self-esteem.

    More recently, we also started to support young graduates with difficulty in entering in the labor market, and this is one of the biggest challenge of Portuguese socio-economic current reality. In this respect, we designed a curriculum based on two tracks: soft skills necessary for an entrepreneur and he necessary skills to become a “Microsoft cloud services selling agent”. In the end of this year, we will announce the first results and all current signs show us that the results are expected to be very positive.