TUGG, Led by Reddit Vet, Plans New “Volunteer in Residence” Program

Xconomy Boston — 

TUGG is getting more ambitious.

Over the past decade, TUGG, which stands for Technology Underwriting Greater Good, has become one of the most visible efforts by employees of Boston-area tech companies and venture capital firms to give back to the local community. Working with the nonprofit, employees donate their time and money to local charities and social ventures, including groups that support the elderly, youth in poverty, homeless families, and young people emerging from the criminal justice system.

TUGG primarily supports local groups through events. More than 2,200 tech professionals nationwide volunteered last year during the seventh annual “Tech Gives Back,” a day of service projects organized by TUGG. This year, TUGG has expanded Tech Gives Back to three days of volunteering taking place in mid-October, with opportunities at more than 50 nonprofits, schools, and offices around Boston.

TUGG members are planning additional volunteer projects in cities around the world, says Mike Cole, TUGG’s new executive director.

Soon, Cole wants to expand the nonprofit’s activities even more. “TUGG has gone through a few different models,” says Cole (pictured above), who joined the organization in June. “I’m kind of moving away from this event-based model and toward something that, I’m hoping, is a little bit more sustainable over the long term.”

TUGG’s expansion comes as the tech industry grapples with a tarnished reputation following a series of crises and negative press over the past couple of years, including allegations of sexual misconduct and toxic cultures at some companies; struggling to stop fake news and alleged Russian interference in American politics; the growing concentration of power in just a few companies; increasing concern about personal data privacy and security; and the industry’s wealth contributing to gentrification and social inequalities in some cities.

TUGG’s new offering is still in the planning stages, but Cole is calling it “philanthropy as a service.” Startup-speak aside, what he envisions is an interesting departure from the typical nonprofit model.

It would start with a sort of charitable version of a startup pitching to investors. Charities and social ventures would present to tech companies and VC firms, seeking volunteers who might be able to help the nonprofits solve problems they’re facing in their operations. The volunteers might be skilled in areas such as search engine optimization, “grassroots fundraising,” or creating and managing an online ticket desk for customer service requests, Cole says. The idea is techies would serve as volunteer consultants—Cole calls them “volunteers in residence”—for a set period of time, say, two hours a week for three months.

“I want folks in the tech companies to raise their hands because they’re … enamored with the mission, not because the CEO says, ‘We need volunteers,'” Cole says. “Nonprofits are looking for longer-term relationships and, actually, help with their businesses.”

Cole also wants to “measure everything” in the projects, he says. If a volunteer signs up to help a nonprofit strengthen its fundraising strategy, he wants TUGG and its partners to track whether the nonprofit’s coffers expanded after the project ended.

Cole spent the past five years living in New York and traveling often to San Francisco, holding sales jobs with tech companies Reddit, Blippar, and Nextdoor. In San Francisco, he was struck by the juxtaposition of the “super rich tech bros” and the homeless. “New York is also very capitalist and very money-driven,” Cole says.

In his experience thus far, the Rhode Island native thinks Boston strikes a good balance “between chasing that dollar, but also paying it forward and giving back to the community,” Cole says.

Cole says Reddit piqued his interest in “the social good aspect” of technology and business. The 13-year-old company operates one of the most popular news aggregation sites and online forums for discussions about virtually everything—for better and worse. (Cole says he still uses Reddit every day and currently follows threads about Boston sports, Bitcoin, futurism, and pictures of rescued dogs before and after adoption, to name a few topics. He says he’s a Reddit “lurker,” meaning he surfs the site but doesn’t post much.)

When he got the Reddit job in 2013, he says, he was its first sales person dedicated to brands. “In many ways, in its early days, Reddit could’ve been run maybe as a nonprofit,” Cole says. The year after he joined, Reddit announced it would donate 10 percent of that year’s advertising revenue to charity.

“The press that comes out about Reddit, for the most part, they focus on some really negative stuff,” Cole says. “It’s the Internet, so of course some negative stuff happens.”

But that’s a small fraction of the “total content on the site,” he argues.

“What I learned from Reddit is community is awesome,” Cole says. “Build your community and focus on them and good things will happen.”

It’s a lesson he’ll try to apply with TUGG.