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Matthew Revell for Heroku

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Three ways to do good with a side project

Side projects make the world go round. Think about it. You can learn new skills, try out ideas, and take paths you never normally would. When you’re ready, you can apply what worked to your day job.

Or, maybe, the side project will become the day job. Slack, Twitter, and Docker each began as tools that were essentially side projects.

Mug that reads 'What good shall I do this day?'

Of course, not every side project ends up changing the world quite like that. But side projects can change lives. Developers around the world are using their side project time to donate code and mentorship to good causes. If that sounds interesting, then here are some ways that you can find projects in need of your skills.

The United Nations

Since 2000, the United Nations has been one of the pioneers in matching online volunteers with projects around the world.

The UN Volunteers program provides an easily searchable database of volunteering opportunities with projects focused on peace and development goals. Whether it’s creating an online forum for young people in north west Africa, developing a schools management system for a non-profit in Burundi, or PHP development for an NGO in Latin America, the tech opportunities through UN Volunteers each relate to focused projects with a clear end goal and estimated project length.

Opportunities to volunteer through the UN

The program is about more than only matching volunteers to projects, though. They provide tools to help manage each collaboration and guidance to ensure a good experience for both sides. With 12,000 volunteers each year, the program offers a good first step for anyone looking to volunteer their tech skills for the first time.

Social Coder

While code-based opportunities are just part of the UN Volunteers program, there are organizations that focus purely on volunteering for software developers.

Social Coder connects developers with charities who have specific projects. Charities shares details of their projects with Social Coder, who then share them with developers who have registered their interest.

Sometimes it can be hard for non-developers to understand the effort and value involved in creating software. Social Coder aim to address that by assigning a market value to each project they administer. No money changes hands but Social Coder say that it’s important that the beneficiaries of the volunteer work get an idea of the scope of work donated.
Past Social Coder projects have helped Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Homeless World Cup, and Street Doctors.


If you’re looking for a way to help specifically with the current Covid-19 situation, then you’ll find opportunities with the Code Against Covid-19 project. Organized by Codementor, the project aims to connect developers with programs combating the virus.

Projects currently using the platform include Operation Masks, which is working to deliver 500,000 masks each day to front line medics in the US. There’s also Covid Watch. That’s a project organized in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of Waterloo. It uses a smartphone app to track who has been in contact with whom by monitoring their Bluetooth signals. Crucially, it does this anonymously. If someone tells the app they have Covid-19, it can then alert any other app users who have been in contact with them.

Developers can also register with the platform to let Covid-19 projects know that they’re available for free or at reduced rates.

Unleash some happy accidents

A lot of the commentary around software development, especially amongst start-ups, is about achieving outsized financial gains. Some would argue that the best way to help good causes is to get rich and then give away your money.

Let’s face it, while many people in tech make a good living most of us won’t be setting up a foundation any time soon. If you have some spare time and you want to use it for good then volunteering your skills can make a difference to people in need. And, who knows, maybe you’ll stumble across a happy accident that results in even more good. I'd love to hear of other ways that people have found to use their side project time to contribute something to those in need.

Mug photo by Nathan Lemon

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