Microsoft’s Erik Arnold merges passion for tech and philanthropy to help nonprofits gain digital success

(Photo courtesy of Erik Arnold)

Erik Arnold likes to joke that for the entire time that he’s been in Seattle, Bill Gates has been responsible for his salary in one way or another. Arnold spent time at the Gates-owned Corbis, at PATH, which has a close partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and now Microsoft, where Arnold is CTO of the company’s nonprofit-focused Tech for Social Impact.

“There is no denying that he and Melinda have inspired many in the Seattle area to engage in the social sector in meaningful ways, and no denying that the evidence-based approaches they advocate have sparked innovation across the sector,” Arnold said. “I did not spend my early career at Microsoft, but it’s clear that their focus on philanthropy is a deep part of the company culture. We are privileged to be in tech in Seattle. Bill and Melinda set an amazing example for us all.”

A Puget Sound native who grew up in Port Townsend, Wash., our latest Geek of the Week studied at The Evergreen State College, and returned to Seattle after grad school at Brown, where he studied history. His transition to tech began at Corbis, the image archiving company founded by Gates in 1989.

“I’d always been interested in computing and tinkered around since high school, starting with a TRS-80 and then into Macintosh Classic. I just didn’t pursue it as a degree,” Arnold said.

When he had a chance to get into the field, he started at the very bottom doing technical support. He was self-taught, but also took courses at Bellevue Community College to ramp quickly, and over the years worked his way through support, database administration, developer roles, into technical program management, and ultimately into leadership roles.

(Photo courtesy of Erik Arnold)

Arnold discovered a passion for the intersection of digital technology and the nonprofit sector, and first went deep in the nonprofit space as the CIO at PATH, the Seattle-based global health nonprofit, where he spent nine years before joining the philanthropies team at Microsoft.

Arnold’s focus at Microsoft is on making sure nonprofits around the world have access to the right online software donations, coupled with training and services needed to run successful organizations on their own.

“There is so much need, and even at the scale at which we operate, we’re barely scratching the surface, so we focus on making it as easy as possible to engage,” Arnold said. “Of the 4 million nonprofits globally, the vast majority are small — with less than 50 staff and very small IT budgets. For many nonprofits, it’s not a lack of willingness to modernize, it’s simply not knowing where to start.”

Three years ago, Arnold’s team started a small pilot program with a few nonprofits to engage them in an exercise to reimagine their missions fully digitally enabled. Today, that pilot has grown into a robust modern donation practice area that goes deep with over a thousand organizations each year.

Nonprofits are needed now more than ever, Arnold says, referencing the “perfect storm” of global pandemic, increasingly rapid climate change, economic uncertainty, racial injustice, rising national populism, record numbers of refugees, and increased food insecurity.

But COVID-19 and the resulting economic uncertainty has disrupted everything from mission delivery, to where we work physically, and how to deliver services to beneficiaries. It’s also completely upended fundraising.

“Fundraising galas? Retail outlets? In-person donor meetings? All gone, all virtual, all seemingly overnight,” he said, adding that impact of the crisis has helped Microsoft direct its philanthropy and define a new software innovation strategy. For the first time, last year the company published a first-party product specifically designed to help nonprofits modernize their fundraising and donor engagement processes.

“We’re now committed to delivering additional products and services for everything from donor engagement to mission delivery, leveraging the best of our productivity suite, advanced analytics using AI and machine learning, and our business applications leveraging low code/no code technology,” Arnold said.

(Photo courtesy of Erik Arnold)

In his personal life, Arnold considers himself an animal person. He grew up with a lot of pets — cats, dogs, chickens, the occasional hamster, guinea pig, and parrot. As he grew older, that evolved to include more serious commitments to critters like horses and goats.

“Nowadays, I keep myself to a couple of mischievous Bengal cats, he said.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Erik Arnold:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m so incredibly lucky that I get to mix my passion with my work each and every day. As the global CTO for Tech for Social Impact, I lead Microsoft’s commercial software strategy for the nonprofit sector. At the highest level, that means I spend my time working on strategies to bring the best technology solutions to nonprofit organizations, and make sure that those nonprofits have access to the training and services they need to be successful. This is done through a combination of purpose-built software tuned for nonprofits, cloud software grants, an industry aligned partner ecosystem, technical training and certifications, and access to digital transformation services.

Last year, Microsoft donated over $2 billion USD in software, cash, and services to over 240,000 nonprofits worldwide. Philanthropy is part of Microsoft’s DNA and the scale of our social commitment takes my breath away. I have the privilege to work with so many nonprofits with so many cool missions. I do this work because my team unlocks the potential for these organizations to use digital technology to run efficiently and be more effective in delivering mission impact.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? There is a persistent misconception about nonprofits that they are most effective when they ensure every penny of every donation goes toward mission. To that end, many donations include strict restrictions for how that money can be used, with only a small percentage allowed for operations. Understandably, donors want to ensure their funds get used to maximize mission impact. While it is appropriate to hold nonprofits accountable for donor commitments, this mentality forces nonprofits into a race to the bottom. It means they are left with very little money to invest in themselves — to modernize and ensure they have the people, processes, and tools to be efficient organizations.

Time and time again I see chronic underinvestment in operations and technology. It’s important to realize that investing in operational aspects of nonprofits is critical for them to be successful. Nonprofit or not, very few organizations can survive if they’re only allowed to invest a few pennies on the dollar back into themselves. If you are in the position to be able to donate to a nonprofit of your choice, the most precious gift you can make is “unrestricted” funding. Unrestricted donations allow the nonprofit the flexibility to apply those funds where they are most needed.

Where do you find your inspiration? Working with nonprofits across the world, getting to learn about their missions, and the amazing impact they are having. If you want to be inspired, check out how The Contingent in Portland is using digital technology to support children in foster care; or how Team Rubicon mobilizes US military veterans to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to the Navajo Nation; or how the SMART Partnership is collaborating to use advanced technology to preserve wildlife in threatened ecosystems. It’s both humbling and incredibly inspiring to be a small part of it.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I live in Teams. It would be incredibly difficult to adjust to work and be productive without access to rock solid virtual collaboration tools.

(Photo courtesy of Erik Arnold)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I’m among the millions now working from home and am lucky enough to have a separate space dedicated to work. It helps to have that defined space to mentally make the transition into work-mode. I also need plenty of room for screens, devices, and my ever-present field journal and fountain pen.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) This is so hard! I work with organizations all around the world, and that means having the opportunity to join meetings at all kinds of strange hours. Giving myself permission to recharge is a work in progress, but I do have some things that work for me. Work and sleep don’t mix, so I don’t ever bring my phone into the bedroom. And I delete Outlook from my phone when I take long vacations.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I’m fluent in Mac and Windows but only know enough Linux to get directions to the restroom.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Walter Bishop from “Fringe.” He learned a hard lesson about the importance of balance in the universe.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? The historian part of me wants to say “time machine,” but this is the age of COVID and boy do I wish for a transporter. Pre-COVID, I was on the road about 40% of the time and it’s now been almost a year since I’ve traveled.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Use it to support nonprofits focused on using data science to advance causes around animal welfare or conservation.

I once waited in line for … A They Might Be Giants / Dread Zeppelin double bill. Worth it.

Your role models: My parents left me with a well-developed work ethic, natural curiosity, a passion for learning, and a healthy dose of humor. But I’d like to highlight one of my mentors, Ingvar Petursson. Ingvar is a bit of an icon in the Seattle area. He’s mentored many technology leaders over the years and I was lucky enough to work with him during his time at Corbis. When I was first learning how to lead teams, he recognized something in me I didn’t yet recognize in myself. If you know Ingvar, you’ll know what I mean when I say that from him I learned peaceful leadership. It’s also because of Ingvar that I make sure to be both a mentor and a mentee. There is so much to learn engaging with others outside of your day-to-day working relationships.

Greatest game in history: Time for me to admit that I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1979. Dice, paper, and friends around a (now virtual) table – it’s great fun. I’ve been the DM most of those years, and currently run a group in a campaign that’s been going for the last five years.

Best gadget ever: The Prague Astronomical Clock

First computer: TRS-80 with a tape cassette drive. The first program I wrote was a random number generator so I could simulate D&D dice. Such a geek.

Current phone: iPhone Xs.

Favorite app: Does Kindle count?

Favorite cause: Difficult question, as I work with all kinds of nonprofits. But the majority of my donations and volunteer time go toward the National Parks and animal welfare.

Most important technology of 2021: Voting machines.

Most important technology of 2023: Voting machines.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Support a cause you’re passionate about!

Website: Microsoft for nonprofits

LinkedIn: Erik Arnold

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