The Merits of “Mandatory” Volunteering

For the past year I’ve worked in the San Francisco tech scene, which is quickly becoming Silicon Valley’s Northernmost outpost and its new de facto capital. One thing you realize when walking through the city, especially in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood is that the tech industry has become a very apparent and pervasive presence that is gradually cutting itself a larger slice of San Francisco’s real estate, culture, and — as some might say — its soul.

San Francisco is a very inwards looking community; a city whose citizens take care of one another and tirelessly work to elevate the status of the its poorest and unluckiest. San Francisco is, traditionally, not a city where enormous wealth will buy you social capital — this is not New York. However, as the tech industry continues to increase the city’s wealth and global footprint, it’s also inadvertently stratifying the city’s populace and inciting social rifts. One of the common complaints against my industry is that our insular nature and lack of social consciousness directly clashes with San Francisco’s emphasis on community and civic duty. That is why, now more than ever, tech companies need to make community outreach and public service a cornerstone in their supposedly progressive corporate cultures.

Three weeks ago I started a new job at Optimizely and was surprised to learn that a core aspect of the onboarding process was an introduction to Optimizely.org, our non-profit wing that runs our philanthropic and community outreach programs. As part of the first month, employees are automatically signed up to volunteer at St Anthony, a wonderful organization that provides food and essential services to San Francisco’s — and more specifically the Tenderloin’s — homeless population. What especially struck me was that it was not just encouraged, but expected that new hires would volunteer as representatives of the company and continue a long career in civil service during their time at Optimizely and afterwards. After volunteering at St Anthony I have a vastly different view of San Francisco and what it means to be a net positive for the community. I have also begun to realize how important it is that other tech companies foster a deep sense of community service in their employees

Making Volunteering “Mandatory”

I understand that it is difficult for companies to force their employees to perform community services, especially on behalf of their employer. Companies have limited jurisdiction over one’s free time and forcibly managing one’s philanthropic efforts can illicit claims of employer overreach. However, the reality is that without a forceful push by employers, I do not see many of my industry colleagues playing active roles in the community.

In order to foster a culture of community service, tech companies should consider the following ideas:

  • Create a portal where employees can easily find and register for local volunteering programs
  • Bring in community leaders to educate employees on the community and their role within it
  • Make volunteering an essential part of the onboarding process to foster an obligation towards community service
  • Create milestones and gamify the volunteering process by creating goals and offering rewards to active employees (techies love gamification)
  • Allow employees to volunteer during work hours instead of on their free time

Be a Net Positive in the Community

I’ve heard the term “Net Positive” a lot in the past few months. There is the idea that any company or organization that takes up space in a community is obligated to give back to that community, thus, not only keeping the community intact, but enhancing it. Tech companies bring an enormous amount of wealth to the areas in which they’re located. It is essential that some of that wealth finds its way out into the community

In Conclusion

While the invasiveness of the tech industry is a theme in many urban areas, the effects are much more pronounced here in San Francisco. While the industry continues to bring more wealth into the city and the surrounding area, not enough of that wealth is trickling down to those that need it most. In order to prevent further social stratification and damage to the community, tech companies (and all companies for that matter) need to play a bigger role in the surrounding community. I believe that the most essential piece of that is creating a culture of community service within the ranks of employees. Sometimes it can be difficult to leave the office, — what with the free food, mood lighting, and nap pods — but for those of us that work in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city, all we need to do is walk a few minutes away to see the poverty and urban decay that continues to plague San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods. We need to do better; we can do better.