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It was 1995 and TechSoup was just a tiny nonprofit called CompuMentor. Our donation program ran out of a box-filled basement. Product donations were picked up and distributed by a jazz musician in a pickup truck. But things were about to change.
"On my old appointment book, I have a note that on May 4, 1995, Daniel and I had a breakfast meeting with Microsoft. We knew it was important. … I have it in capital letters, but I'm pretty sure … that we didn't foresee the outsized impact it would have," says Albert Fong, our managing director at the time.
But how did they get that meeting in the first place? Daniel Ben-Horin, our founder and chief instigator, explains: "Naturally, we had been reaching out to Microsoft, but were having trouble getting a return call. I mean, we were tiny and they were using a very big national nonprofit as their distributor of donations."
Luckily, Vince Stehle at The Chronicle of Philanthropy wrote a positive piece about TechSoup, and a few months later, a piece about Microsoft Community Affairs.
Daniel saw an opportunity: "It occurred to me that they [Microsoft] would probably return Vince's calls. He kindly introduced us. I met with a very nice young woman named Mary Pembroke. Soon thereafter, Jane Meseck became our program officer and she has been a fantastic ally there, and still is."
The Microsoft donation program at TechSoup had begun.
When the donated Microsoft software began to arrive at TechSoup, Phil Ferrante Roseberry (now our senior VP of strategic development) remembers "… being very surprised a week into my tenure at CompuMentor, when everyone in the office (all seven or so of us) formed a bucket brigade to unload the software from Microsoft into the basement. Each copy of Microsoft Office weighed 11 pounds and came on 22 floppy discs."
Things were changing in the basement, too. John Blair, TechSoup's systems architect, says: "Bruce [Ackley] had a spreadsheet with the names of all the software items on the shelves. He typed who got which item into the spreadsheet. We had to run hundreds of the product labels through the postage machine before mailing them out each quarter."
After Microsoft started donating software through TechSoup, things got bigger and more complicated. We upgraded from a simple spreadsheet to a database for tracking products and orders. John Blair recalls there were other changes as well: "We got a website, we posted the most popular products there, and put up a simple order form that just sent us an email."
But we were still a tiny nonprofit, even if we had an impressive donor partner.
Phil Ferrante Roseberry says, "I remember fretting with Albert Fong over whether it was reckless to project … $2,500 in monthly admin fees [the small fee charged for processing each donation]. We decided it was indeed reckless … and then did it."
Daniel Ben-Horin concurs: "We were worried about what seemed like a very big ask of $2,500 to buy wood for shelves. We eventually got up the courage to ask Microsoft. I'll always remember that Jane [from Microsoft] gave us the money with a note that said, 'Think bigger.'"
And think bigger we did. This week, TechSoup has launched www.techsoup.global, bringing the TechSoup donation program to every nonprofit on the planet. We've come a long way from the basement.
And Bruce Ackley, that jazz musician with a pickup truck? He's still with TechSoup, still making music, and still touring: "With our global reach and diversity of technology offerings, I am still happily at TechSoup — while continuing to record and tour with Rova. Even though striking a balance is often a challenge, life with my family, my music, and TechSoup, is really exciting," says Bruce.
When asked to reflect on how far TechSoup has come, our founder Daniel Ben-Horin says:
"Branch Rickey, the baseball general manager, is credited with saying, 'Luck is the residue of design.' So much of what has happened as a result of Bruce's truck and then Microsoft's investment was certainly unplanned and at least a bit 'lucky.'
"But I do remember that our selling point in that first meeting was that we cared about nonprofits and that we would figure out ways to support them so that donated software didn't become expensive doorstops. Microsoft was willing to give us a chance because they wanted an authentic relationship to the nonprofit world, and I'd like to think that that authenticity is still our prime asset as the program reaches its millionth user at a social benefit organization and its 15.9 millionth product donation."