Effective Community Investments Require Strong Local Partners and Leaders

A lot of factors determine whether a community technology skills program is successful. One of the most important is identifying strong community leaders with a deep understanding of community needs, a vision for how those needs can be met, and a willingness to take risks and innovate.

Whether it’s a political leader, a community leader, or a youth leader—at the end of the day, you need the support and energy of someone that the community looks up to. In my experience, when you meet these kinds of people, you often know it right away. There’s a certain magnetism they exude, a demonstrated passion for what they do, a vision of what they want to accomplish, and a clear-eyed sense of what’s possible.

Rodrigo Baggio, a well-regarded social entrepreneur in Brazil, is one such individual. Charismatic and energetic, Baggio is focused on addressing what he calls “digital apartheid”—the lack of access to information technology for most of the world’s population.

In the mid-1990s, Baggio founded the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI), which uses technology “as a medium to fight poverty, stimulate entrepreneurship, and create a new generation of change makers. Supported in part by Microsoft since 1999, CDI has established more than 821 community technology centers in 13 countries, including Brazil, where the centers provide computer and Internet access to nearly 295,000 people.


As Baggio’s reputation has grown, many community leaders throughout the region have approached him about setting up technology programs in their towns. That’s been great for us, because Baggio’s network of local relationships has enabled Microsoft to scale our efforts and directly support where it can be most effective.

Another thing I have observed is that the most effective leaders also have an ability to anticipate and adapt to change. One thing we’ve been able to do well is find partners who are willing to see their programs grow and evolve, and who understand the need for course corrections. Finding leaders who can adapt but stay true to their mission—who can stay focused on what we’re trying to accomplish together—is a very powerful thing.

Gabriela Barna, director of Educating for an Open Society (EOS) in Romania, comes to mind in this respect. When Microsoft’s partnership with EOS began in 2006, it focused on providing basic ICT skills training to people in underserved areas through a network of public technology centers. But as we shifted our emphasis to providing a range of workplace skills, Barna found creative ways to move with us without having to compromise on her organization’s mission. EOS now tailors its courses to meet the needs of employers, and thousands of unemployed Romanians have benefited from EOS training programs.

We’re not experts in working with the chronically unemployed, and we never will be. So we need leaders who know their community well, have lots of credibility and connections, and can execute. We know that the quality of the partnerships we create with an organization is about 90 percent of what determines the success of any of our projects.

Another example of a strong local leader is Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties in California. Goodwill Industries runs a variety of training programs for people trapped in long-term, intergenerational poverty—including those with limited education, individuals exiting the criminal justice system, the homeless, and people with disabilities. Goodwill also has programs to help military veterans and people who lack basic English skills.

In 2007, Alvarez-Rodriguez approached Microsoft with an idea for a CTSP partnership. With financial support and software donations from us, Goodwill has implemented a state-of-the-art online self-assessment tool that lets people customize technology skills training to address their specific needs and build on their strengths.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about another remarkable local leader we’ve worked with – Run Xuping, the Rabbit King of China.


Editor’s note:

This is the third 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:

Comments (3)

  1. Joe Sullivan, Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA), University of Washington says:

    In TASCHA’s experience with Microsoft grantees, we also witnessed opportunistic leaders who were ready to make the most of the resources that presented themselves—whether that was a site visit by a Microsoft exec or under-appreciated skills of community members. These leaders often see opportunities where others do not because they can get things done and they are good with people. This is indeed an important success factor.

    There is an interesting interplay here for grant making between the leaders and the scale of impact. For example, Microsoft doesn’t just pick personalities. They pick impactful organizations. Later it becomes clear that one of the reasons the org is so successful is because of an extraordinary leader. In several TASCHA employability studies it was clear that these leaders also used their relationship with Microsoft opportunistically to gain support from governments and other donors. Essentially, their CTSP grant validated their organization. It reveals another dimension of community affairs impact. It’s not just the value of computer training, but what else the organization was able to accomplish because of its partnership with Microsoft.

    The leaders named in this post are doing truly exemplary work. I wonder what other ways donors could support organizations by recognizing the “opportunistic” qualities of successful organizations or by developing “the right kind” of leadership internally. Maybe it’s already happening.

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