Devi Thomas

The blurred lines between public and private good

Episode overview

At Microsoft Philanthropies, Devi Thomas collaborates extensively across global teams to build new technology with and for nonprofits. From her vantage, she sees how the blurred lines between public and private good are reshaping the philanthropic sector. In this episode, she covers:

  • Where AI fits into the future of philanthropy tech

  • Why nonprofits are at an advantage when they collaborate to solve problems

  • How systemic changes have dissolved borders between sectors

Devi’s bio

Named one of 2022's Top Women in Communications and a 2023 Social Impact Pioneer, Devi is a visionary and go-to-market leader who has 20+ years of experience overseeing communications, global campaigns, and nonprofit and tech for good marketing using data-driven market insights to help NGOs and nonprofits meet the challenges of operating today.

In her current role, Devi is the global head of Nonprofit Community Capacity at Microsoft Philanthropies. She leads a team focused on listening, learning from and bringing together nonprofit communities. In this function, she collaborates extensively across global teams to develop and scale innovation with, for, and by nonprofits with the goal of better telling their stories and supporting their communities. 

Connect with Devi Thomas


For travel--

Eight years ago, the city of Missoula eliminated bus fare to make it free for everyone to get where they needed to go. It was an experiment. The city wanted to see how they could reshape the relationship the community had with public transportation.

Though it was a straightforward premise, making the bus system truly free required collaboration between public and private entities, local businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits banded together. And it worked, eliminating fares helped increase ridership by more than 70%. It also made the bus system equitable in a way it had never been before, and it became a point of pride for the city.

There's a good lesson here for the social impact sector. In a time where there's plenty of hand-wringing about how to make systems more equitable, sometimes the best solution is the most straightforward one. But straightforward doesn't mean easy. Often, this work requires intense collaboration. It means taking some big risks, and it demands a dogged commitment to do the work to understand what community members need, and then prioritizing that above all else.

Welcome to <i>Impact</i> <i>Studio.</i> I'm Sam Caplan, Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. When I look at which companies are really making strides with their CSR work, it's often the ones who are willing to blur the lines between the corporate and the philanthropic, the ones softening borders between organizations and institutions to unite people around a common cause.

No one does that better than Devi Thomas, Global Leader of Nonprofit Community Capacity at Microsoft Philanthropies. She's spent her career forging connections to strengthen communities, and that is a focal point in her work today.

All right, so Devi, can you give us an introduction into

Intro to Microsoft philanthropies

Microsoft Philanthropies?

- Absolutely, Sam. Thanks, first of all, for having me.

It's really an amazing privilege to be working with Microsoft Philanthropies, and specifically with building a nonprofit community with Microsoft Philanthropies. And what I really am excited about doing in this role is to be able to live the Microsoft value of being in service of both the planet and the communities that live on it.

And so we activate that service, not only through products and services but really through the collaborations that we build on this team. And that fundamental practice that sort of governs everything we do is true in philanthropy as well, right? / be in service of. And that's to understand that our best contribution as a company comes from learning from others and from sharing those learnings and being part of a community that can solve problems together.

So we believe that no one company, industry, country can really solve some of the most complex problems alone. So we like to build that bridge across sectors, borders, foster that collective action to drive progress so much faster than we can do on our own. So I really think about the approach that Microsoft Philanthropies has is in working through our employees, driving that force of our employees behind that philanthropy, equipping all of the community changemakers that we work with in philanthropy nonprofits.

IGOs are a piece of that. We serve over 300,000 nonprofits, so it's an incredible privilege, but also an incredible responsibility as well. And then, really, to be able to double that goal to reach even more changemakers and to be able to enable the systemic change that we want to see by empowering those employees and those change makers. And that's through policy and moving towards the world that we all want to see, right? An inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and trusted world.

So I think in a lot of ways, Microsoft Philanthropies is the place that is in service of the rest of the world, and we're doing our best to make sure that we do that in ways that are listening and learning and made for the community in every way.

- Devi, I love how you've touched on a couple of times in that response that Microsoft is actively learning from the nonprofit community. Can you go into just a little more detail there? Like, what are what are you learning,

Incorporating learnings into their approach

and how do you incorporate those learnings from over 300,000 nonprofit organizations back into your own company and the way that you approach social impact?

- Yeah, I think this is a great question, because a lot of the times, there is a sense when a corporation is sitting at a table with a non-profit, that that corporation might have the answer to everything. They're bringing, maybe, the bigger resources, they might be bringing a bunch of talent to the table, and there might be an understanding that they would understand the community--

complex community problems and be able to solve them.

But the reality is--

and I know this from my time in the nonprofit sector--

is that the more proximate you are to the problems, you have a much better view of exactly what's needed to help local communities, and that those solutions are coming from the local communities themselves. So I think what's most interesting to us has been to listen and learn on what's actually working in those communities to drive change. And some of that is systemic or dealing with specific causes like affordable housing or food insecurity and understanding best practices that have worked in various places.

But sometimes that's looking inside the nonprofit and asking some important questions on what's going on with fundraising these days. What's coming in as unrestricted fundraising--

how does that change the way you operate? How are your employees structured and better able to serve the communities they serve?

And then when we actually deliver those programs through nonprofits, what in the program delivery could become more efficient and could change the way that nonprofits look at things? We have conversations sometimes with nonprofits that are about privacy, about data, and the fact that data is never clean. And it's very difficult to bring data sets together.

We'll have conversations about the talent gap and this idea that it's actually very difficult to recruit top talent into the sector. We'll have conversations about mental burnout within the context of nonprofit leaders, and why does that keep happening. And I think learning those types of insights as much as the insights around technology's role really helps us to build the best solutions, whether that's technology solutions or skilling offers or anything that we can do as a philanthropy team in service of the sector.

And I think we have to start from the angle of humility, which is that we're not going to get it right all the time. But we also know that we cannot do it alone. And I think those two spaces, right? Giving yourself the grace to try and to fail, and then the other space of really, really understanding that it's you're one part of a puzzle--

are the two approaches that I'm seeing more and more in any kind of effective partnership between the public and the private sector.

And the other space that I think is really interesting, and it's really driven by these sort of massive systemic changes that we've seen in the last three years, with something like a pandemic happening or an overall great resignation or sort of burnout in the space of workforce development, and understanding where skills could lead to jobs and what that looks like, and then this movement that we see around racial equity and understanding the change that needs to happen globally to respect communities and give spaces at the table for every voice--

I think all of that together has really put us in a situation where there is no one sector responsible for solving problems.

We are all part of this problem-solving sector. And then, the divides and the lines between public, private, civil society--

everything just starts to blur a little bit. And that is the moment where I think effective partnerships happen.

Because you're in that place where you are collaborating for the first time and looking at what everyone can equitably contribute to that conversation, and recognizing that your skill set alone is not enough. And that's where I see the most amount of hope for our future, actually, is looking at partnerships like that.

- And Devi, how are nonprofits at an advantage, or maybe a disadvantage, when they collaborate to solve problems?

- I'd like to think that nonprofits are almost always at an advantage, but in--

the way I think about it is that those of us who've sort of built our careers in the nonprofit sector, and then transferred to other sectors, like myself--

I spent a little under 20 years in the nonprofit sector, and then moved into tech. And I consider myself the nonprofit girl at the tech table. And really, what that means is that we are the best advocates for how innovative a nonprofit can be.

So as we think about that, it's really been an opportunity to understand how can a nonprofit best leverage its resources, its scrappy kind of approach, or sometimes even its proximity to the community, to be able to partner with us in a way that really helps not just the sector, but helps us in philanthropy become better sort of advocates for those communities. And I think that places a little bit of the advantage and the disadvantage.

I also think that when nonprofits sort of have fewer options, it's because they're not willing to experiment in the same way that other sectors might be willing to experiment. And this is where, again, we have that opportunity to learn from each other, collaborate, and co-create, because we can take on some of the risks associated with making mistakes. And that is not something that someone who serves communities in life-improving in life-changing ways is necessarily going to be able to do.

So I think that's another area where I see a little bit more push and pull, particularly between tech philanthropy and nonprofits. And then, finally, just in this area of driving trust into the sector, how can that space be seen as an area that is at the forefront of change? And the more that we can see nonprofits as being advantageous there, being the leaders there, it really does change--

it closes the trust gap for everybody, in terms of should we support these causes, how do we support them, where does the dollar go, what does donor transparency look like today as they're making more and more impact.

And I think that's another role that nonprofits have an advantage, but also a disadvantage in a lot of ways. So how do we close that and help them become more empowered, to create long-term change.

- Hi. I'm Keriann Strickland, Chief Marketing Officer at Submittable. We're so excited to share that Submittable is now a Microsoft Tech for Social Impact recommended partner. This means that we're working together with Microsoft to build solutions that benefit nonprofit organizations and foundations, and we're committed to innovating together.

We're also excited to bring you to this episode as part of <i>Impact</i> <i>Studio.</i> Our intention is to keep creating spaces like this for more conversation. Now, back to the episode.

- I'd love to hear your thoughts, like, more broadly, where do you think that technology and AI will fit into this partnership and relationship with nonprofits?

- Yeah, you know, AI is really the buzzword, isn't it? It does feel that way. But the truth is that it has existed for a long time, and I think we know that. The other piece that's interesting is, the way that folks define AI today is just one example of how you can leverage this intelligence, this artificial intelligence.

There are other examples of transformative AI, like predictive analysis and forecasting, that is different from the large language models that most people refer to when they think of AI today. And I think where the nonprofit sector has always surprised and delighted me is in the sense of innovation and the ability to innovate quickly. That's not something that most people associate with a nonprofit, but it's true, because necessity is the mother of invention.

And so here, you have this sector that, with very limited resources, has often created new practices, new processes, and leveraged new technology to be able to serve communities. So where a nonprofit organization may have fewer options in terms of being able to fail fast, because you hear that a lot in the private sector as they innovate, what we really can see, though, is that there's kind of a movement among nonprofits to understand how leveraging some of the core aspects of both the large language models and some of the predictive forecasting could help them deliver programs better, could help them attract new talent to the sector, could really help nonprofits in just automating basic tasks that eventually allow for more relationship building and more partnerships.

And that growth in the sector, that space, I think, is what I'm really interested in seeing. I also think some of the most incredible examples of how AI has been used past, present, future is going to come from the sector. And we're already seeing examples of it everywhere, but I think watching that, slowly watching how they mitigate risks and really look at opportunities to leverage, prompt engineering or to leverage pieces around likelihood and propensity models--

that could really change who else gets brought in to being part of the change-making sector.

Because then, all of a sudden, you're looking at net new generations, new donors, people who we wouldn't have reached out to before, who become part of this conversation and part of this community, because we've leveraged a technology that's allowed us to do that.

- Can you talk a little bit about how the nonprofit sector is leveraging AI so far?

- Yeah, I think that both the non-profit, problem-solving, philanthropic sector are really using AI in a way that is helping us democratize it. And I'm really excited to see some of that happen.

I've read a lot that AI is often more artificial than intelligence, right? And specifically, people say that with the LLM models. And our job is really to make sure that we work with the sector to mitigate that risk and sort of train humans to use their intelligence to drive the assist from AI, right?

And so that requires that two-way exchange. And a lot of the times, what we're seeing is the philanthropic sector add the human to the design and add the human to the use. And that is really helping, in terms of getting AI to that next level.

And so the key to success in AI is often in failing first, right? You have to train these models to really be able to be exactly perfect or good for you. And the more we do that, we level that playing field, by using it and training it.

And a good example I can say is with the Maui fires, we have an incredible partnership with both governments and with nonprofits who are involved in that terrible situation to be able to leverage satellite imagery and predict where these fires are headed next to be able to give advance notice and to be able to directly look at damage that's happening on the ground and send the kind of responses that we need to in a timely way. Another excellent example of leveraging technology right at that moment, and doing so in a way where we're using satellite imagery, we're using real-time data, but we're predicting and we're looking at things in a way that we're going to be able to use our human strategies and our humanitarian strategies to drive impact.

So what a great example on the humanity of AI, then when you see these types of programs come to fruition. So to me, I think this is where leveraging all the right aspects of AI to be able to get to our philanthropic focus, our shared philanthropic goals as a society has really--

could really be effective, and I'm so excited to see where that leads.

SAM CAPLAN: When the city of Missoula introduced a zero-fare policy to their public transportation, they kicked off a virtuous cycle. The increase in ridership helped secure federal grants to purchase electric buses, and the move to an electric fleet boosted pride and ridership even more. Two years ago, voters approved funding to expand the transit system and make the zero-fare program permanent.

That's the thing about social impact. When you do it right, the good outcomes tend to build on each other. That's how you ladder up to systemic change. Thanks for tuning in.

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