Michael & Susan Dell Foundation: Technology Enables Social Impact

By Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Sarah Murray
2016 | Case No. SI127 | Length 15 pgs.

Established in 1999, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation aims to transform the lives of children living in urban poverty through better health, education, and family economic stability.  Initially focusing on Central Texas, the foundation rapidly expanded across the United States and globally in India and South Africa.  By 2015, the foundation had committed more than $1.1 billion, with annual grant making in the $100 million range, with nearly 400 grants (annually) under management. 

The approach of the Dells—Michael, as founder of Dell Inc., the Texas-based technology company, and his wife Susan, a former fashion entrepreneur—was to use rigorous research to identify areas where, given their resources (technological, financial, and human), they believed there were the greatest opportunities for the foundation to make a difference.

During the 1990s, Michael Dell had transformed the way technology was designed, manufactured, and sold.  He sought direct feedback from customers on the problems they were experiencing and found new solutions, a strategy he transferred to his philanthropic work.  Meanwhile, Susan brought to the foundation her entrepreneurial skills, having developed her own business in fashion, which began when she launched her own clothing line in 1997.

Technology plays a critical role at the foundation.  The Dells hold a fundamental belief in the transformational power of technology, not only as a tool with which to scale up social programs, whether in education in the United States or microfinance in India, but also as a means of increasing internal operational efficiency, enabling the organization to have maximum impact.  “Technology is part of our DNA,” said Susan.

Learning Objective

a) Illustrate how a top foundation uses technology to improve the effectiveness of its grantmaking, impact evaluation and overall operations and processes. b) Serve as the basis for discussion around the benefits and limits of technology in effecting social change, particularly in the philanthropic context.

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