News and analysis
August 18, 2015

Solar Company's Charitable Work Offers a Popular Perk: Travel Abroad

SolarCity photovoltaic designer Alex Webster explains solar energy to students at Kulumbeni Primary School in Matate, Kenya.
A solar company whose chairman is entrepreneur Elon Musk has found an innovative way to energize its employees while bringing electricity to schools in developing countries.

SolarCity created the GivePower Foundation to install a solar-powered lighting system in one school for every megawatt of energy the company deploys for clients. In 2014, GivePower installed systems in 511 schools in Africa and Central America.

And there’s a bonus in the plan for some top-performing SolarCity employees: They get to go on five-day service trips to install the equipment. The competition is stiff; SolarCity has more than 13,000 employees at 80 centers across the U.S., and only 10 to 15 are selected for each trip. There are about four trips per year.

"Employees really rally around meaning and impact," said Hayes Barnard, foundation president and chief revenue officer at SolarCity.

GivePower collaborates with other, established international aid groups, including BuildOn, that can provide translation services and help manage logistics.

Employee’s Idea

Mr. Barnard, who joined SolarCity two years ago, said his personal experience helping to construct a school in a developing country for BuildOn inspired him to suggest the company put its solar-power skills to work illuminating schools. Electricity enables children to study longer and adults to take night classes. It can turn a schoolhouse into a community center.

SolarCity started its chartable work in disaster relief, using grants from the Musk Foundation to build solar-power systems in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Hurricane Sandy.

According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, young people are interested in working for companies that provide opportunities for them to volunteer.

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity chief executive, said the international trips have been a hit with employees, who often send him notes of gratitude for the experience, and have boosted retention.

GivePower received nonprofit status this month and announced its first donation, $500,000 from Bank of America. Run by Mr. Barnard and two other SolarCity employees, GivePower is now seeking donations from the public.

The nonprofit hopes to provide solar power to 1,000 schools in 2015, including some in areas of Nepal hit by the recent earthquake.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.