Just a month after Neyssa Shockley broke ground on the Shockley community garden, she received a letter from the City of Dallas’ code compliance department. Her garden, in the Wheatley Place neighborhood, had mountains of mulch on the family’s lot, and the city said it needed to be spread out.
“We had to distribute large piles of mulch by the eighth of April or get fined,” Shockley says.
Shockley knew she needed help for the big job. With the deadline fast approaching, she says she was unsure what to do. The Shockley Foundation relies only on volunteers to help with their community garden. That’s when another nonprofit suggested she check out the Socialwyze app.
Socialwyze is a for-profit company founded by SMU graduate Cody Merrill that connects nonprofits with unemployed individuals who can earn hourly pay by doing community benefit work. Shockley says that Socialwyze was a lifesaver for her community garden.
“We would have been really stressed trying to get enough volunteers out there in time,” Shockely says.
Individuals who schedule work through Socialwyze are not employees of the company. They are considered contract workers and are paid directly from funders who support Socialwyze, such as the EarthX Community Fund. Founded by Dallas developer Trammel Crow, EarthX is focused on promoting sustainable environmental practices in business. EarthX sets the contract rate for each market based on the MIT Living Wage calculator for a given city. In Dallas, that’s $13 an hour.
More than 20 nonprofits in Dallas have partnered with Socialwyze to address environmental and food insecurity issues with funds from EarthX. The organization has a network of several hundred workers referred by nonprofit partners.
Some nonprofits refer their clients to Socialwyze for work opportunities. The Dallas 24 Hour Club, a transitional sober living shelter that has been in operation since 1969, encourages its residents to find work via the app. Other groups, like the Oak Cliff Veggie Project, use the app to recruit, schedule and track hourly community gardening work.
Workers who schedule hours through Socialwyze are paid as soon as the same day via direct deposit or reloadable debit card. In a nutshell, Merrill says, it’s gig-work for good.
How Socialwyze works
Presently, Socialwyze’s agreement with EarthX limits each worker to 300 paid hours a year, equivalent to seven and a half weeks of full-time work. Merrill believes, however, that the organization can help people get a foot in the door to transition into a stable employment situation. Since 2020, a handful of people, such as Cristian Camacho, have turned their volunteer experience into full-time work.
Camacho grew up in Oak Cliff, which has a long history of limited access to healthy and affordable foods, and wanted to get involved with solving problems in his community. He began volunteering with the Oak Cliff Veggie Project. Last October, he quit his job as a lab analyst for an oil and gas company.
“I was just showing up for a paycheck,” Camacho says. “I didn’t feel happy, so I quit to spend time volunteering and find out what I like to do.”
He was excited at the opportunity to be paid for public benefit work and signed up on the Socialwyze app.
Camacho says he was able to build the skills he needed to transition from a former fossil fuel employee to a full-time sustainable urban gardener in South Dallas.
Merrill points to a study from the Corporation for National and Community Service which suggests that volunteers who are unemployed are at least 27% more likely to find a job than non-volunteers. Those lacking a high school diploma are estimated to be 51% more likely to land a job if they can build up a volunteer resume. Socialwyze expects to see a similar phenomenon with its workers. Users can build up a work history through public projects on the app, and then use that digital résumé to demonstrate credibility to potential employers or landlords.
Part of Socialwyze’s vision is to help create a pipeline of potential community gardeners and urban farmers by partnering with nonprofits to facilitate paid skills training.
“I look at it as a way to develop a whole new labor system that could transform South Dallas into a food basket,” says Owen Lynch, executive director of Restorative Farms, a South Dallas-based nonprofit created to develop a self-sustaining, professionally-run farm system.
“I got to learn the basics,” Camacho says, “and then they put me in contact with the folks at Restorative Farms, and now I’m a full-time urban farming apprentice.”
A better way
Socialwyze was inspired by similar programs launched in cities across the country targeting the most vulnerable under-employed populations, including the unhoused and formerly incarcerated. There’s A Better Way, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of the most well-known public programs.
Former Albuquerque Mayor RJ Berry spearheaded the program, which used tax dollars to pay nonprofits to recruit and coordinate individuals experiencing homelessness, who were paid $9 an hour to clean up parks and public spaces. The program also linked participants with social services, such as housing, and was a part of a broader push by Berry to address homelessness in Albuquerque.
There’s A Better Way received widespread media attention, and since 2015 more than a dozen cities across the country have experimented with similar programs, including Fort Worth’s Clean Slate program.
The New Market Business Association, a Boston-based economic development non-profit, found that programs like There’s A Better Way can be a solution in reducing homelessness, but the results vary depending on how the programs are designed and implemented.
Within three years, approximately 3,500 homeless individuals participated in Albuquerque’s program, and 360, roughly 10%, found permanent employment. In Fort Worth, 80% of employees hired for the Clean Slate program were homeless, and roughly 50% of them were connected to permanent housing within four months of employment.
The original program in Albuquerque was temporarily halted in 2019. The New Mexico Inspector General’s office criticized the program for lack of transparency and accountability for the cash payments made to volunteers. They said that more checks and balances needed to be put in place for tracking work hours and payments.
Removing the background check barrier
Berry now serves on Socialwyze’s advisory board. He says Socialwyze’s app allows for better tracking of work scheduling and payment processes. Even though access to a smartphone could be a barrier to entry, studies suggest that it is a low one — the majority of individuals facing homelessness or unemployment have access to a smartphone.
Socialwyze works with referring organizations to track how many of their workers may be homeless, formerly incarcerated or unemployed. Presently, 100% of referred workers are reported as income insecure, 65% have been caught up in the criminal justice system, and 25% are in transitional housing. Though Socialwyze currently doesn’t serve the unhoused population, Merrill says they hope to do so in the future.
“The first woman we worked with had just gotten out of drug treatment,” says Dawan Shockley, COO of the Shockley Family Foundation. He says many of the people who have volunteered with the Shockley garden have fallen on hard times.
During Dawan’s interview at Wheatley Park, just blocks from their garden, a woman at a nearby table was talking on her phone to her boyfriend about needing to find work. Shockley approached the woman and referred her to the Socialwyze app.
“I know the hopelessness that you face when you don’t have opportunity,” he told her.
Merrill believes it essential to partner with nonprofits already deeply embedded in communities in order to make these sorts of organic connections with those in need.
“We want to be a conduit for those closest to the community who have expertise,” he says.
Nonprofit leaders say it’s helpful that a person doesn’t need a background check to sign up for Socialwyze. They say it gives people with spotty criminal records or long periods of unemployment an opportunity to find work. The Shockleys say they’ve had no concerns or issues with Socialwyze workers lacking background checks.
“It’s at the individual’s discretion if they want to tell people they are formerly incarcerated,” Neyssa Shockley says. “But the people that I have come into contact with are unemployed and looking for ways to try to keep some income in their pocket. They’re able to easily sign up, come out to work, and by the next day they can get paid.”
While Socialwyze doesn’t do formal background checks, it isn’t entirely hands off.“We screen candidates in the public sex offender registry and coordinate with referring organizations to identify potential problematic situations,” Merrill says. And if future nonprofit partners require background checks, Merill says they will help workers get them.
Gig work for good
Merill says funders and governments can be convinced that it is economically smarter to pay those at risk of falling into cycles of unemployment, homelessness or incarceration to complete public benefit work. In addition to EarthX, he’s already persuaded Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Nathaniel Harding of Cortado Ventures to invest.
“You can not only systematically help people in your community who most need income and would cost the most to care for if they were unable to obtain it, but you can also pair them with public benefit projects in the community that most need to be completed,” Merrill says.
Camacho says that the Socialwyze platform opened up opportunities for him. He imagines that it can do the same for many others, particularly those who may struggle to find full-time employment due to factors such as long-term unemployment, former incarceration or homelessness.
Socialwyze is a public benefit corporation. That means they are a for-profit company, but Merrill says they don’t focus exclusively on maximizing profits for shareholders. Their revenue comes from their funders, not from the nonprofit partners, which gives “a mandate to do right by both your stakeholders and society,” Merill says.
Research suggests that programs like Socialwyze work best when cities partner with local nonprofits. Merrill believes that it is just a matter of time before City of Dallas stakeholders see the program’s value.
“I want this to be a government-led payer mix, but as a startup, it’s tough getting into the government funding game,” Merrill says. “Government funding is going to come over time when we have really robust data that shows how impactful this program is on the individual and community level.”
Correction: Originally this article stated that Socialwyze does not track metrics around whether workers are formerly incarcerated or homeless, and does not check the backgrounds of workers. Those were factual errors which have been amended along with additional data and statements from Socialwyze. Other amendments have been made to improve clarity regarding the nature of the Socialwyze program, the classification of workers, and how they are paid.