2020 has forced tech companies to adapt their approach to social impact for a world changed by COVID-19—a world increasingly defined by physical distancing, remote work, and distributed teams. What’s more, many of the social impact strategies pioneered by tech companies during the pandemic may mark a new frontier for social impact in the long term.
As sf.citi reported earlier, remote work is on the rise, and it’s not likely to end after the pandemic. Dropbox became one of the latest tech companies to join San Francisco Bay Area businesses Coinbase, Okta, Twitter, Slack, Square, Upwork, and Zillow in announcing a permanent work-from-home option for its employees. A Salesforce survey of 20,000 people around the world, meanwhile, found that the overwhelming majority of respondents believe remote work will become our new normal.
Learn more about changes to social impact during and after the pandemic by watching sf.citi’s conversation with three tech and social impact leaders at Scaling Social Impact in a Remote World.
So what does this shift to “remote first” mean for social impact? At the second edition of our Scaling Social Impact event series, we talked to social impact leaders at three different tech companies to explore how they’ve transitioned their social impact efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and what the future of social impact will look like in an increasingly remote world. Take a look at what we learned with Amy LeBold, Executive Vice President of People at NextRoll, Tina Lee, Head of Social Impact at Dropbox, and Amanda Lenaghan, Head of Social Impact at Cruise.
SOCIAL IMPACT BEFORE THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Most modern tech companies have a dedicated social impact team to guide and oversee corporate philanthropy, nonprofit partnerships, and employee volunteer opportunities. That being said, all of our Scaling Social Impact speakers emphasized the pivotal role their broader employee base plays in shaping the company’s social impact agenda.
At NextRoll, for example, social impact is spearheaded by NextRoll Gives Back, a completely employee-run group that focuses on giving back to the community in three distinct areas: education, professional development, and community. Pre-COVID-19, explained NextRoll Executive Vice President of People Amy LeBold, NextRoll’s social impact work primarily took the form of in-person volunteering, including student mentorship, job shadowing days, and career panels.
Dropbox similarly has employee ambassadors that champion its social impact efforts across its 13 company offices and locations. In fact, said Dropbox Head of Social Impact Tina Lee, the company’s approach to social impact is very much driven by the causes Dropbox employees deem most important. In addition to supporting the company’s social impact efforts, Dropbox co-founders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi established the Dropbox Foundation in 2018 to partner with human rights organizations around the world.
Cruise Head of Social Impact Amanda Lenaghan pointed out that 1,400 of Cruise’s 1,700 employees are involved in the company’s social impact channel. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Cruise’s social impact programs resulted from organic relationships between community organizations and Cruise employees.
SOCIAL IMPACT ADAPTED TO THE PANDEMIC AND REMOTE WORK
Each of the tech companies represented at Scaling Social Impact transitioned to remote work shortly after the pandemic began, requiring their social impact strategies to shift online as well. And while none of our speakers claimed to have “cracked the nut” on remote-friendly social impact initiatives, they shared examples of how their companies have continued to give back during the pandemic.
Step one for all three companies involved reaching out to their nonprofit partners to better understand immediate needs and figure out how to engage with a suddenly distributed and remote workforce. During this process of collaboration, Amy Lebold of NextRoll came to an important realization: “We don’t necessarily need to try to create the same opportunities that we had before.”
LeBold also acknowledged that Zoom fatigue presents a very real challenge to enticing employees to virtually volunteer. One way NextRoll has overcome that challenge is by offering asynchronous volunteer opportunities that can be adjusted to individual employee schedules.
Tina Lee of Dropbox described how Dropbox has shifted the focus of its social impact work from volunteering to advocacy and fundraising for its nonprofit partners. Already an expert in smart, collaborative workspaces, Dropbox has been using its channels to elevate the good work of its nonprofit partners, as well as offer company and peer gift matching programs on their behalf.
Amanda Lenaghan of Cruise highlighted the surprising benefits of going remote, both in terms of work and social impact. Determined to help local communities recover from the pandemic, Cruise found a way to use its technology to meet and expand the company’s social impact goals. In an unexpected twist, the challenges of COVID-19 and remote work allowed Cruise to uncover new use cases for its fleet of self-driving cars, including teaming up with nonprofits to alleviate the pandemic-induced spike in food insecurity.
Below are some examples of social impact initiatives adapted for remote work.
- Cruise partnered with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank and SF New Deal to use its fleet of fully electric, self-driving cars to deliver over 110,000 groceries and meals to San Francisco’s most vulnerable populations, including those hardest hit by COVID-19.
- NextRoll has been providing students online support with college applications and mentorship. The company continued its longstanding tradition of hosting a career panel for students at San Francisco’s June Jordan School for Equity. To do this virtually, NextRoll employees recorded themselves talking about their pathway into tech and answering questions submitted in advance by students.
- Dropbox hosted its first virtual Hack Week in which Dropbox employees developed solutions to the new challenges people, companies, and nonprofits face while working remotely. Dropbox volunteers worked on ten social impact projects for seven of the company’s community partners, including San Francisco nonprofits Larkin Street Youth Services, Shelter Tech, and Black Girls CODE.
- Cruise launched a new social impact program called FutureWorks to support students and job seekers interested in tech and STEM careers. The first virtual FutureWorks Week included a series of online events that brought together over 200 community members and Cruise employees, as well as five Bay Area nonprofits focused on workforce development.
- NextRoll employees wrote postcards for Be The Match, a nonprofit that supports patients going through bone marrow transplants.
THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL IMPACT AND TECH-NONPROFIT PARTNERSHIPS
Our speakers predicted that 80–90 percent of tech volunteering in 2021 will be virtual. Given this likely reality, they offered helpful insights for nonprofits looking to partner with tech companies in the future.
- Make sure your mission aligns with the social impact priorities of the company. This means doing your research about the company and its social impact strategy. Being able to communicate how your work and mission align with that of a given company will certainly help start a conversation about potential partnerships.
- Find employee advocates. Many tech companies have employee resource groups (ERG) that organize company-wide programming, especially during heritage months. Does your work overlap with the communities or causes tech ERGs represent? If so, get in touch!
- Optimize for virtual group activities. Companies are looking for remote social impact opportunities and partnerships that allow their employees to connect with one another as well as with communities in need. It may be well worth the time and effort to adapt your programming to virtual team-building formats.
- Identify the company’s giving platforms. Tech companies are well-practiced in rapidly deploying giving campaigns or peer and company matching programs in response to natural disasters and current events. Understanding the software and processes they use to do so can help nonprofits partner with companies on fundraising efforts.
In the coming months, sf.citi will host part 3 of our Scaling Social Impact series with San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit leaders. Subscribe to our newsletter for future announcements and updates. And if you haven’t done so already, check out the highlights from our first Scaling Social Impact event about racial equity in tech.