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View of damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands (Russell Watkins / UK Department for International Development Photo; Flickr Creative Commons)

The number of disasters this past year — including devastating hurricanes and multiple refugee crises — have strained the charitable resources of tech companies eager to do good in the world. So they’re strategizing how to optimize their aid by deploying technical expertise instead of focusing on cash donations, by building partnerships and by getting ready for emergencies before they strike.

“My budget’s gone and we’re in the second quarter,” said Cameron Birge, humanitarian response manager for Microsoft Philanthropies, referring to the company’s fiscal calendar. His group sends out teams of experts to assist in disasters. “They weren’t built to handle the number of missions they’ve been on. We were overwhelmed by the amount of responses that took place.”

Birge and other corporate leaders addressed these challenges at the 2017 Global Washington conference held this week at Seattle’s Bell Harbor International Convention Center.

Neal Myrick, director of the Tableau Foundation, and Alicia Vermaele, senior manager for Global Social Impact at Starbucks at the 2107 Global Washington conference in Seattle this week. (Megan Swann / Global Washington Photo)

Fellow panelists Neal Myrick, director of the Tableau Foundation, and Alicia Vermaele, senior manager for Global Social Impact at Starbucks, agreed that the demand has been intense. That’s pushing corporations to shift their philanthropic approach.

“Donating money is not our ‘super power,’” Myrick said. “Our super power is authentically engaging with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to build their data literacy and capacity to be more effective.”

Tableau Software, a Seattle-based company that sells software for analyzing and visualizing data, recently had first-hand experience with crisis preparedness — though it wasn’t entirely deliberate.

The company had been working in Myanmar on a project dealing with data and democracy, and helping build evidence-based decision making. This summer, violence escalated against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, causing some 500,000 people to flee Myanmar and creating a refugee crisis.

“When that happened, people who were actually trained started gathering data and building maps,” Myrick said, providing useful information for those trying to help the victims. “They’re mapping conflict regions in Myanmar and which groups are engaging in conflict.”

Panel moderator Frank Schott, left, vice president of global programs for NetHope, and Cameron Birge, humanitarian response manager for Microsoft Philanthropies, at the Global Washington conference. (Megan Swann / Global Washington Photo)

Microsoft, alongside other corporate and nonprofit partners, has worked for many years to help Syrian refugees. More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes to neighboring countries. Microsoft’s efforts include software and support for children’s education, data security and tech job training.

“Our strengths are our tech platforms,” Birge said. That includes software and apps, productivity tools, cloud infrastructure and the technical skills of its employees.

The panelists suggested that nonprofits soliciting support from companies think carefully about the unique talents and products that a corporation offers, and how they can be utilized. They encouraged creating partnerships of corporations and NGOs that draw on a variety of skills.

“The pivot that is becoming more broadly known now in the last few years is it’s more about investing the skills and the assets of the corporation in the response and the preparedness,” Myrick said. “That is where the real value is, that is where the most traction can happen.”

“We work with Tableau and Microsoft on many emergencies and the access to the expertise is something that you can’t even pay for,” said panel moderator Frank Schott, vice president of global programs for NetHope, a consortium of U.S. nonprofits supporting technology in developing countries and areas hit by disasters.

Ephraim Sikalundu, left, Data collector, and Vincent Munsaka, right, Community health worker stand with Racheal Mokosha, District Malaria Focal Person, looking at a mobile phone, with the grass-roofed huts of Harmony village behind them. (PATH Photo / Gabe Bienczycki)

In the past, companies often followed conventional pathways for addressing global problems. Like if Tableau wanted to help curb the spread of malaria, the company might have bought mosquito-proof bed nets and donated them, Myrick said. The organization now appreciates that there are better means of engagement.

“Buying bed nets is not a ‘core competency’ of the Tableau Foundation,” he said. “We shouldn’t be doing that. We shouldn’t be building wells in Africa. What we should be doing is figuring out where data analytics and visualization add value and produce outcomes alongside the other partners working in the field.”

The company is working just such an approach in Zambia, where they’ve teamed up with PATH, the global health nonprofit, for the Visualize No Malaria campaign.

For Starbucks, its core competencies center on having 27,000 stores in 75 countries. Following the hurricanes that thrashed Puerto Rico, Starbucks cafes became one of the few places that still had wi-fi, Vermaele said. The shops are also a place for family members to find each other and connect after a disaster strikes.

The opening keynote presentation at the 2017 Global Washington conference. (Megan Swann / Global Washington Photo)

The coffee company is also considering what kind of training might make sense for some of its 350,000 employees to prepare them to help when tragedy hits their communities.

The question is, “how do we activate our army of green apron wearers?” Vermaele said.

The panelists from the three companies also said they’re supporting their employees’ interests in contributing to aid organizations. That can include matching charitable donations, emailed calls to action and internal webpages sharing ways to get involved. Tableau has its own service corps that facilitates skills-based volunteering. Starbucks additionally encourages customers to make donations to disaster victims through their mobile app.

The group kept coming back to the idea of being strategic in their disaster responses, recognizing that the demand is unlikely to ease up.

“This is probably going to continue,” Birge said. “So what is our position going to be?”

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