What It Means to be a Responsible Tech Company

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A sign outside of Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently made headlines
A sign outside of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he would donate 99 percent of his company shares to charitable causes over his lifetime. But what can tech companies do for the communities in which they operate, beyond simply writing a check?

The world was abuzz earlier this month when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would donate 99 percent of his company shares to charitable causes over his lifetime. The announcement drew criticism about how the donation (currently worth $45 billion) would be apportioned, and for some it brought to light a bigger question about how tech giants decide to give back.

Billionaire tech philanthropy is nothing new. In October, when Square filed its initial public offering, CEO Jack Dorsey (of Twitter fame) announced that he would give 40 million of his shares, the equivalent of 10 percent of the entire company, to help underserved communities and “drive positive impact.”

And last month Bill Gates drew headlines when he announced that he would join more than 20 other billionaires – including Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and Marc Benioff of Salesforce – to launch a coalition that invests in clean energy projects around the globe.

Throwing money at causes doesn’t solve problems, but it certainly helps. It takes a lot more than dollar signs, though, to create lasting impact and be a truly responsible corporate citizen (tech or not).

It starts from within

For a growing list of companies, corporate responsibility has taken the form of employee volunteer programs. These programs have been on the rise, in part due to the fact that millennials will comprise about half of the U.S. workforce by 2020, and more than 50 percent of millennials want to work at a company involved with causes. Clearly companies realize the recruitment and retention benefits of engaging employees in this way.

The range of corporate volunteer programs varies. Some companies host an annual day of service, while others offer everything from 20 to 80 to unlimited hours of paid time off for volunteering on the job.

In addition to engaging employees through volunteering, some companies leverage more than their workforce to give back. Salesforce, for example, is known for pioneering a 1-1-1 model that donates 1 percent of the company’s equity, product and employee time to give back to communities around the world.

“The work of Salesforce.org has had a significant impact on the communities where Salesforce employees live and work,” Ebony Frelix, VP of philanthropy and engagement at Salesforce.org, told 3p. “This type of integrated philanthropy encourages companies and individuals to become corporate citizens in their communities, and gives our employees something to feel connected to.”

Every Salesforce employee is able to spend six paid days every year volunteering, and each employee that reaches six days is granted a “Champion” grant of $1,000 to give to a nonprofit of their choice. To date, Salesforce.org has donated $100 million in grants, employees have volunteered 1.1 million hours, and the Salesforce product now powers more than 27,000 nonprofits.

What is great about this model is that it takes a systems approach to doing good, rather than trying to solve a problem by only writing a check.

Tech-quity

Indeed, businesses can do a lot more to support their local communities beyond giving away cash.

Upon Uber’s announcement in October of its plan to move its corporate headquarters to downtown Oakland, California, the city’s Mayor Libby Schaaf outlined her thoughts in a letter to Uber executives on how the tech company could make its move to the city across the Bay in a way that contributes to a “more vibrant and equitable city where [everyone] thrives.”

In particular, Mayor Schaaf called for businesses to support the city’s local economy, strive for equity, be a compassionate neighbor and fight displacement. Schaaf encouraged actions such as sourcing locally, eating and shopping at local small businesses, providing educational and job opportunities for low-income, young people of color from local public schools, hiring Oakland residents, encouraging employee volunteerism, reducing environmental impacts, and partnering with the city to identify creative solutions to help address the region’s affordability crisis.

“You chose Oakland because of its magic,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote in a letter to Uber executives. “This is how you can help us preserve it … [s]trive for equity, tech-quity, providing equitable access to top-notch technology training and jobs for our residents and fostering our local technology sector’s growth so it leads to shared prosperity.”

Tech-quity is certainly something other tech companies can strive for, as well.

Getting to resilience

Being good and doing good is not only about helping communities; it’s about creating resilience.

“Resiliency is much more than just earthquakes,” Patrick Otellini, chief resilience officer for the city and county of San Francisco told 3p. “Whatever [companies] can do internally to create a culture of involvement and giving back, in disaster relief and general volunteering, is a good for everyone.”

While the resilience conversation often focuses on climate adaption, disaster preparedness and economic vitality, resilience is really more than that. It’s about creating communities that thrive – for all people. Because communities that don’t thrive eventually crumble.

Tech companies, especially those in Silicon Valley valued in the range of $5 million to $500 million, certainly have a role to play, and it can involve more than money.

Requests for an interview with Uber went unanswered by press time.

Image credit: Flickr/Jimmy Baikovicius

Nayelli Gonzalez

Nayelli Gonzalez is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Conveners.org, a capacity building organization that serves impact-focused conveners and accelerators. A sustainability innovation strategist and storyteller dedicated to purpose-driven work, Nayelli has advised startups, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to drive engagement and amplify positive impact in the world. A trained journalist with an MBA, she writes on sustainable business and social impact trends for a variety of publications.

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