Microsoft’s Top Lawyer Recruits Celebrities and Colleagues to Start Charity

by Caroline Preston   on October 20, 2011   publication:

Kids in Need of Defense provides free legal assistance to immigrant children in courtrooms across the country. Its roots are in an unexpected place: the Microsoft Corporation.

Brad Smith (left), Microsoft’s general counsel, got the idea for the nonprofit after learning that many children who are caught up in immigration proceedings—about 4,000—never receive the help of a lawyer.

Mr. Smith recruited law firms, corporate legal departments, and the actress and refugee advocate Angelina Jolie to help form a nonprofit devoted to ensuring that any child who is separated from his or her parents and then faces immigration proceedings can get access to a lawyer.

Microsoft, which since 2002 had focused its pro bono legal efforts on helping immigrant children in Washington State, where its headquarters are located, contributes $1-million a year in cash to the charity, which was founded in 2008.

Today, the group, known as KIND, operates in eight cities. It has trained roughly 3,250 lawyers and assisted more than 3,000 children. Mr. Smith says the group hasn’t met the goal of providing legal help to all unaccompanied children, but it’s closed the gap by about half.

Mr. Smith spoke recently with The Chronicle about the group and his thoughts on corporate philanthropy. Some highlights:

How did you convince Microsoft to support the idea?

Part of it was explaining to people inside the company that lawyers actually have a professional obligation to contribute pro bono time. Part of it was explaining that this was an opportunity that really excited our lawyers and paralegals. It’s good for morale, it’s good for retention, it creates opportunities for people to work as part of a team. It helped that we as a company are very committed to addressing immigration issues because we have a large number of employees with foreign passports.

Company leaders are talking more these days about using a corporation’s business expertise in its philanthropy. Does KIND fit in with that movement?

We’re a software company, but any technology company is first and foremost a high-skilled people company. Technology companies tend to be global companies, with employees from around the world. Microsoft has what is probably the largest in-house immigration legal team. So we had a lot of people with expertise on immigration issues. You wouldn’t confuse that with Microsoft’s core competency, but it’s a critical competency.

What advice do you have for companies that want to take on a key project like this?

There’s no substitute for just experimenting and finding something and embracing it. When we started down this path, we never dreamed that nine years later we would have a national program to work with like KIND.

But also, recognize that it’s an incremental effort. It makes sense to take a step, learn, and think before you take the next step after that.

How has the recession affected your work?

The financial picture is definitely a challenge. Law firms and lawyers are very generous with their time. The volunteer time they’ve donated to KIND in the last 12 months exceeded $11-million. But it’s a lot harder to raise money than volunteer time. You can create a sustainable model where the dollars are roughly 15 percent of the time you persuade people to contribute, but you do need that financial support in order to have the staff which provides the training and the infrastructure and the glue that holds everyone together.

How can corporate philanthropy in general have a bigger impact?

It’s important to step back and define a very clear goal. The nature of philanthropy is such that people will almost always feel good about what they’re doing. You believe in it, you tend to get very positive feedback from the people you’re helping. All of that’s good, but it can sometimes obscure a situation where you don’t have the clarity around your goals that you would expect to have in, say, a business environment.

What are the best ways for philanthropy to support immigration issues?

One area is to focus on systemic changes to the immigration system, through research and advocacy. Secondly, there is an important opportunity for operational activities of the type that KIND represents. Philanthropic groups are a little reluctant to get involved in supporting operations as opposed to research and advocacy. But we won’t have sustainable operational models without some level of philanthropic support.

The third thing is to look at the needs of people who, for example, lose their cases. We have a project that’s working with the Guatemalan government to ensure that children who aren’t permitted to stay in the United States have some kind of safety net when they get off the airplane.

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