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Corporate culture

When doing something for free makes sense

Tiago Mota
Dec 21, 2020 ∙ 4 mins
When doing something for free makes sense

Batman fans will remember the scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: the Joker crashes the mob bosses’ meeting to address the biggest problem with organized crime in Gotham. He has a simple solution to ease all the bad guys’ pain: kill Batman.

The response from one of the bosses: “If it’s so simple, why haven’t you done it already?

The Joker’s answer would become a famous quote: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

Simple as ROI?

He has a point! Everyone should be compensated for their work, and it’s common to need to invest a significant amount of time and money in learning and becoming proficient at a skill. Being paid for doing the work you were trained to do is simply you getting a return on your investment. But there are times when a definitive ROI shouldn’t necessarily be your goal, such as when the entity who will be benefiting from your work doesn’t have much (or any) money, or when doing your work for free can help foster some good in the world.

Been there, done that

I should know. Before becoming a developer, I worked for four and a half years at a small non-profit. The organization struggled to bring in enough money to carry out its mission. Being on the inside helped broaden my perspective a lot. Sometimes, we would pitch to donors or corporations interested in simply giving us money. More often than not, though, what we really needed wasn’t the money. It was the tools, equipment, labour, or other non-financial resources to fulfill our mission.

Goods and services can be more valuable than money for some non-profits; they can help deliver on the mission, and assist in bringing in more donations. That’s why I’d say that if you ever find yourself in a position to help by volunteering your work, you should absolutely do it.

Teaching young people is good for the soul

After switching careers from marketing to programming, I was lucky enough to land at Osedea, a company with deep community-helping roots. I was amazed by their initiative that aims to teach basic coding skills to high school students. The goal was to lower the dropout rate by introducing kids to an interesting new skill set.

The nearby school would send students for a coding workshop, facilitated by our company’s developers, with the company's computers. All the students had to do was show up. And they did! Alas, I arrived at Osedea in the midst of the pandemic, so the initiative has been put on ice for the time being, but everyone is eager to start up with it again ASAP.

Win-win-win

A new opportunity to help arrived soon after I started at Osedea, and I jumped at it, even before understanding the project. I felt I could help, so I volunteered. It allowed me to experience firsthand how a company gives back to the community, with people volunteering their time and delivering high quality output as if it were a paid job. As a new dev, it also allowed me to work with different team members, on different technologies that I had to learn by doing, to help Le Refuge’s beautiful mission of generating real change in our community. It’s a win-win-win situation, and we can’t get enough of those.

The Refuge des Jeunes de Montréal, an organization which supports troubled and homeless young men between the ages of 17 and 25, has held an annual benefit concert known as the Show du Refuge since 1991. The 30th edition of the concert would be severely impacted by the pandemic (as filling a concert hall at this time would be unwise), so they decided to hold a virtual event. But the organization still needed the money from ticket sales. That’s where Osedea came in.

Our role was to create a website that allows people to “buy tickets” by making a donation to the Refuge, while mimicking the experience of selecting seats in a concert hall on a map. When you pick a seat, it shows the effect your donation will have on hosting or feeding the people helped by the Refuge.

The whole thing was cleverly rebranded as “The No Show du Refuge”, with the tagline “We count on your absence”. It was a great success, bringing in over $280k - more than any “in person” edition! All the seats are now (fortunately) spoken for, but you can check out the project. And, if you’d like to learn more about the Refuge des Jeunes and how you can support them, visit their website.

In the end, my contribution to this project was much smaller than I expected it to be. Still, it felt great, and I’ll certainly do it again whenever the opportunity arises and I’m able to. No matter how small your effort to better the world is, it’s worth it. You should be well compensated for your work, but if a worthy cause shows up, you can also gain a lot by volunteering your time.

Photo credit: Mara Ket.