Big corporations and billionaires dabbling in philanthropy don't always receive a glowing reception from the general public. The latest big company to burnish its charitable credentials is Microsoft, which has just pledged to provide $1bn-worth (£700m) of cloud computing resources to organisations it considers to be working for the ‘public good’.
In headline terms it’s an attention-grabber – the resources will be shared out over the next three years to around 70,000 non-profits and 900 university research projects free of charge. Anything deemed ‘free of charge’ is always bound to raise some questions and of course, there’s more than a touch of enlightened self-interest here.
Microsoft will have an eye on the future – what sensible business doesn’t? – and hope that organisations will continue to be its customers for a long while after the three year donation. It’s also an effort to reach the non-profit and education sector in a bid to keep them out of the hands of rivals like Google and Salesforce.
But equally, using big data could be a real opportunity for non-profits. This pledge offering up access to servers and services would be a way for them to access the processing power businesses would usually need to pay hefty fees for.
So there is altruism there – but Microsoft needs only look to Facebook to learn the importance of treading carefully when implementing a philanthropic commitment.
Facebook’s Free Basics scheme where some mobile sites are accessible for free (including Facebook, naturally), has recently come under fire in India. Firms there feel the internet giant is giving itself an unfair leg-up over local competitors while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said Facebook’s campaign prompting people to support the plan was ‘crudely majoritarian and orchestrated’. Ouch.
Then the wider Internet.org initiative of Facebook’s, aiming to get the ‘next billion’ people access to the web, has also had to bat away cynicism and faced more serious scrutiny over net neutrality.
Microsoft boss Satya Nadella will no doubt be all too aware of the philanthropy minefield. He's attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this week to explain more about Microsoft’s involvement in providing computing power for initiatives beyond big business. Well you didn't expect Microsoft to limit its own fanfare to a simple press release, did you?