Volunteer program reimagines charity

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We should all be open to learning from each other, whether it’s a nonprofit iterating in startup style or employees volunteering and learning from the experiences of those they serve. With so many tech companies right in the heart of Mid-Market, where Meals on Wheels of San Francisco has such a concentration of clients and so many people in need of support, it’s a no-brainer.

A new program from Meals on Wheels, which sends two employees a week to deliver meals, is a small step that can make a big difference in making our city into more of a community. We believe we should all look for ways to develop innovative partnerships that will grow our community and benefit all of us. Together we can become One City, San Francisco.

It all started with one tech company employee. He sent one email, had one great idea and effectively kick-started a program that sent hundreds of other tech employees to deliver meals to elderly San Franciscans in need. Sometimes, one employee is all it takes to make us One City.

That’s the spirit of Zendesk, where all of the employees have been actively engaged in different ways building bridges across communities. The obligation that was Zendesk’s community benefits agreement has become its greatest opportunity. Now, 95 percent of Zendesk employees have volunteered in and around our community and are beginning to fully understand the Tenderloin isn’t just a neighborhood, it’s a home.

It’s these employees who have helped make our outstanding partnership possible. Since April 2015, Meals on Wheels and Zendesk have been working together to deliver meals to a single-resident occupancy hotel along the Sixth Street corridor.

Zendesk was the first team to work with Meals on Wheels on a daily basis, as part of a pilot program, sending rotating teams every morning down the street to drop food off, organize it and deliver it to the residents of the Raman Hotel, an SRO for formerly homeless seniors, managed by Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own daily lives and be out of touch with the fact that sometimes people are in need. This partnership has helped remind us there are others who are very much in need just next door.

At the Raman Hotel, Zendesk employees have built relationships with the residents, taking time to gather valuable data Meals on Wheels can use to measure ways to do more and to help more.
This program was created in an effort to try new solutions to alleviate the problem of hunger and poverty. Now that a new-generation workforce is the most visible in San Francisco, organizations like Meals on Wheels have had to rethink their engagement strategy, innovating in the same way any startup would. They are changing the way they do business by changing the way volunteers and the communities they serve connect. They are asking companies to pledge a commitment to make an ongoing difference in the lives of their neighbors. This “Team Volunteer” model opens the door not only to effectively deal with the rapid growth of an aging and impoverished population but also to foster a deeper understanding between two seemingly disparate communities. It places the same faces at the same doorsteps, week in and week out where they can start a conversation and make a connection.

The program we built together was a pilot, and now Zendesk volunteers visit the Raman only on Fridays. But other companies are picking up where we left off. Nerd Wallet plans to join Zendesk at the Raman every week, and companies like MileIQ and Splunk have approached us to make similar weekly commitments at other nearby SROs. Imagine what could be possible if every tech company in Mid-Market made a similar commitment? We believe it’s possible. Tech companies don’t exist independently from our community, together we are One City, San Francisco.

Danie Belfield is director of volunteers at Meals on Wheels of San Francisco. Tiffany Apczynski is director of public affairs and social responsibility at Zendesk.

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