The energy put out by the 16,000 California youth could easily power the stadium lights. It’s the final countdown to the start of a massive onstage event featuring performances and inspiring talks by their favorite artists and celebrities from many fields. There were no tickets to buy; each attendee earned admission by doing good works, and the experience will launch another year of efforts to help others, locally and globally. As a co-title sponsor of this WE Day event, Microsoft Philanthropies, and a legion of Microsoft employees, spent the day at the Forum in Los Angeles, helping out and celebrating alongside local students and educators.
Since 2011, Microsoft has actively supported the growth and diffusion of programs launched and managed by Free The Children. The Canada-based nonprofit implements international development projects in developing areas that help families and communities lift themselves out of poverty.
Free The Children’s WE Schools programs give youth the chance to take action through projects that help their own communities and others that may be on the other side of the globe. In California alone, more than 800 schools are part of the WE Schools network, and more than half of those send representatives to WE Day.
“People give their time and come back year after year because they believe in the next generation and the causes they care about.”
— Craig Kielburger, Co-Founder Free The Children
WE Day events are both the culmination and kick-off of WE Schools programs. Youth come from far and wide, and funding for travel to WE Day is available to schools that need help with expenses. Since a quarter of a million students join in California’s WE Schools projects, the event is live streamed so that they all can take part in it. To kick off the back-to-school season, a broadcast network special highlights the celebration for a national audience.
Everyone from celebrities to volunteers are happy to participate in a WE Day. “People give their time and come back year after year because they believe in the next generation and the causes they care about,” explains Craig Kielburger, who co-founded Free The Children 20 years ago at age 12. WE Days highlight successes, providing the young people in attendance with a positive message of empowerment and hope.
Studies have shown that WE Day and WE Schools have a transformative impact on students.
Something for everyone WE Day and WE Schools are unique because there is no specific cause designated for social action. From fundraising to build a clean water system in a developing country to organizing a campaign to prevent bullying in their school, students pursue what inspires them.
“Everybody can find their place in this,” states Erin Barton, global head of partnerships for WE Day and the Free The Children and ME to WE family of programs. “There’s a sense of, ‘I’m giving back as part of a group of like-minded people who aren’t all addressing the same specific issue but who are part of a broader community,’ looking to move from me to we—from a place of I and self-concern to thinking about the collective of the community.”
The ability for technology to enable connections and form community is one reason that Kielburger believes that young people can now end the worst forms of poverty and remove the barriers to youth being agents of social change. “The [technology] tools were, in many cases, first novelties—entertainment, video games, social networks,” Kielburger observes, “but are increasingly being used by a generation of young people as tools in the fullest sense for positive action, for young people to tackle some of these enormous challenges.”
Volunteering and more
Microsoft is committed to WE Day’s programs, and so are Microsoft employees. “We can’t run WE Days without volunteers,” states Barton. “We’ve seen really high attendance rates by Microsoft employee volunteers who come out to support our WE Day events, and it is super important to us that we can rely on their commitment.” On WE Day, volunteer roles range from hosting special guests to chaperoning students to directing parking.
“The volunteerism of Microsoft employees is not only at WE Day,” clarifies Barton. “It’s through the yearlong program of WE Schools.” She notes the special benefit Microsoft offers when it hosts events for youth at its own locations. “Being able to have the connections with Microsoft employees who are volunteering is really meaningful for the young people that come out to the Microsoft campus.”
Microsoft employees don’t just give their time to Free The Children and WE Day—they make cash donations that the company matches. “We have had a number of employees choose Free The Children or WE Day as their cause through the [annual] giving campaign,” Barton reports, crediting Judson Althoff, president, Microsoft North America, for challenging other employees to join him in giving. Althoff also visited Kenya with ME to WE and brought a number of Microsoft Surface devices to donate to a local Free The Children school.
An outcome that matters
Excitement and media attention aren’t the only measures that matter when celebrating the successes of WE Day events. Volunteers, attendees, and educators all report their reactions and suggestions through third-party surveys. The most important outcome of a WE Day is that inspiration is turned into action through the set of WE Schools projects that students take on after the celebration.
“Every week, we send resources about a new cause to schools, every month we create a new campaign that students can do, and throughout the year we give them all these great resources … workshops to plan what their actions will be and youth coordinator support so that kids can call, Skype, email, to connect with team members who help mentor them in their actions,” Kielburger says.
And the students do take action. During the 2014–15 school year, WE Schools student leaders spent nearly half a million hours volunteering for local and global causes and raised almost a million dollars for associated nonprofits. Long-term, youth who participate in the WE Schools program go on to volunteer and vote at higher rates than do their peers. Barton emphasizes that “These impacts can be directly attributed to Microsoft by helping to make WE Day possible and by supporting the framework for our WE Schools programs to take place.”
Learn more about WE Day, WE Schools, and Free The Children’s programs at we.org. There are many ways for individuals and organizations to donate their time and support to empower youth and contribute to international projects.
This special issue of Catalyst is devoted to volunteerism as a broad theme, rather than just one specific cause or issue area. That’s because at Microsoft, we know that being part of our Bay Area community means doing all we can to address the priorities of our local neighborhoods and our employees.
Microsoft stands behind its employees’ efforts and interests with a $25 donation for every hour of volunteer time they give to a nonprofit, dollar-for-dollar funds to match their personal monetary contributions, training for prospective nonprofit board members, and more.
As you read on, we hope you will be inspired as we are by the organizations profiled here and will consider supporting their work.
Sid Espinosa Director of Philanthropy and Civic Engagement