IBM’s model for corporate philanthropy

Celia Moore

As an innovation company, IBM’s success over its 100-year history has been dependent on constant change. Development of the IT industry may appear evolutionary, as a series of developments based on new scientific discoveries were integrated into products. In fact development has been marked by significant transformations that were not predicted. To manage change of this nature and speed, IBM has had to be a learning organization – clear about its central mission and responsive to changes in its environment.

In 2002 the newly appointed CEO Sam Palmisano undertook a company-wide exercise to redefine IBM’s corporate values. For 72 hours the company participated in an online ‘Values Jam’ accessible to 320,000 employees. The inputs were analysed using a ‘jamalyzer’ and the revised corporate values confirmed as:

  • dedication to every client’s success;
  • innovation that matters to our clients and to the world;
  • trust and responsibility in all our relationships.


Reshaping IBM’s corporate philanthropy

In the early 1990s IBM reshaped its global operations, and our philanthropy programme was reshaped too. While the programme contributed IBM’s technology, it also made very substantial cash donations. As such it did not fully deliver IBM’s core strengths and value. Also, since the programme was based primarily on funding projects rather than strategic programmes, it was difficult to measure the impact, and the processes for learning about where we should focus resources were inadequate.

The corporate philanthropy programme was transformed around three key principles:

  • engaging with a broad group of stakeholders inside and outside the business to determine priorities and provide relevant market intelligence;
  • integrating IBM’s core capabilities in research, information technology and business development into all programmes;
  • a new approach to partnership.


We started by focusing on our core capabilities in technology and business development and asked our stakeholders which of their priorities could potentially be met from these. This helped to redefine the core mission of our philanthropy around the intersection of the company’s capabilities with critical societal needs defined by government agencies, NGOs, our clients, business partners and employees. These were also relevant to our business development.

We then developed a set of strategic programmes to address some of the major issues identified. One example is the Reinventing Education programme, where we have more than 30 partnerships around the world working with education administrations and teachers on their role in transforming teaching and learning for the knowledge economy.

All our programmes now have innovative technology and management systems at their core. The World Community Grid applies the latest technology for providing computing power ‘on demand’ to contribute to major scientific research programmes that will help deliver new medical therapies, and better understanding of issues like climate change and crop development. Voice recognition technology helps children and adults develop literacy skills vital to operate in the knowledge economy. Open Source solutions are supporting rapid response following major disasters like the Asian Tsunami.

Historically, corporate philanthropy was a one-way process, with only intangible benefits to companies in terms of positive image and ‘feeling good’. IBM’s model of partnership goes beyond this, generating specific benefit to the company while also primarily serving social needs. For each programme IBM engages researchers and consultants alongside the community partner to shape a solution, which often involves technological breakthrough. The philanthropy programme can thus act as a beta test-bed which delivers new insights which then feed into further developments. This model of partnership is based on engaged learning: IBM and the partner collaborate to develop an appropriate solution from which both learn and benefit. The partner is no longer a passive recipient but an active collaborator. Arguably this delivers a solution that more directly matches their need.

A kind of symbiosis ensues. While bringing new resources to communities, IBM learns about developments across a range of needs. These are fed into the company’s knowledge base and in turn allow it to maintain its vitality in the marketplace.

Celia Moore is Manager, Corporate Community Relations, EMEA, IBM UK. Email Celia_Moore@UK.IBM.COM

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