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Tech Companies and Their Employees Develop a Philanthropic Bent

"I'm seeing it, but I'm not seeing it institutionalized to a great degree," said Putzier, who operates First Step Computer Consultants Inc. of Prospect, Pa. Young companies, he said, "can't afford to have a lot of people taking time off yet."

Policies on volunteering are commonplace at more established firms such as America Online Inc. and Fannie Mae, which encourages workers to volunteer for 10 hours a month and pays them for it. More than 1,600 Fannie Mae workers participated last year, says Tony Tijerino, a spokesman for the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Established firms offer to donate new or used computers, to help wire local schools, or to advise social service groups on the equipment they need, as several D.C.-area companies have done for the United Way of the National Capital Area, according to Meredith Johnson, a United Way staffer.

But some local executives report that their employees are beginning to demand more opportunities for hands-on involvement. After a successful initial public offering in February, WebMethods co-founder Caren DeWitt says she was flooded with requests from option-rich employees asking what they could do to give back to the community.

WebMethods Inc., a Fairfax company whose technology makes it easier for firms to do business electronically, is in the process of starting a charitable foundation and linking up with other local companies to promote volunteerism.

DeWitt says it's a way to help the community and to show employees that the company fosters "a work-life balance." She adds that "more and more people really want a way to have that."

There are some dangers in company-sponsored volunteer efforts, warns Putzier. He says firms need to take care to see that the programs don't become yet another requirement for already overburdened workers who fear that "to avoid it looks politically incorrect, like I'm not philanthropic."

Yet, to others, it's a sign that the technology sector is catching up to the rest of the country. A 1999 report by Independent Sector suggests that more than half of American adults volunteer in some capacity and 71 percent of U.S. households donate to charities.

John May, managing director of the venture-capital firm New Vantage Partners and an adviser to Net Impact, expects local techies to embrace philanthropy in the next few years, as their companies mature and their wealth, which now is often in the form of stock options, becomes more liquid.

"This year is the year a lot of people are going to talk to the lawyers and get their tax planning done," says May. "2001 should be the year when we'll see money start to flow out the other end of the pipeline."

Instant Reply

Last week's column on the resurgence of the Peter Principle and the rise of incompetent employees into companies' upper ranks drew e-mail from readers who said small firms often don't have the resources to provide the technological building blocks their programmers and developers need, let alone spare time to train managers on the job. Such difficulties are pervasive at big firms as well, according to readers.

"It's worth noting that the same problems occur at larger companies," wrote Maryland-based Web developer Ross Emery, who recently left a large federal contractor for a new employer. "Basic problems included managers who did not understand Web technology, lack of qualified candidates, spur-of-the-moment hiring, and lack of training resources."

The Week Ahead

Treat yourself to a cappuccino or some sugary bits on Tuesday. It's Techies Day--founded in 1999 to celebrate geekdom and encourage more children to take science and math courses in preparation for a high-tech career. For the wonk-inclined, there's a policy seminar on Capitol Hill, at which leaders in government, business and the nonprofit community will mull over the digital divide and the uses of technology in the classroom, among other topics. Volunteers from Tech Corps, a national group that trains teachers and wires schools, will be on hand in Southwest Washington to talk with charter school students. For more information, visit www.techiesday.org and www.ustc.org.

Send tips, gripes, and your experiences in punching the virtual time clock to Carrie Johnson at johnsonca@washpost.com.

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