Friday, January 18, 2008
Striving for the Greater Good
Kudos to Google for their commitment to the greater good, the Global good.
Google Offers a Map for Its Philanthropy
By HARRIET RUBIN
Google announced a plan on Thursday that begins to fulfill the pledge it made to investors when it went public nearly four years ago to reserve 1 percent of its profit and equity to make the world a better place. The beneficiaries of Google’s money range from groups that are fighting disease to those developing a commercial plug-in car.
The company’s philanthropy Google.org, or DotOrg as Googlers call it will spend up to $175 million in its first round of grants and investments over the next three years, Google officials said. While it is like other companies’ foundations in making grants, it will also be untraditional in making for-profit investments, encouraging Google employees to participate directly and lobbying public officials for changes in policies, company officials said.
Google may be one of America’s 10 richest corporations as measured by market value, but its budget for philanthropy is minuscule compared with the $70 billion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Still, Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, expressed a hope back in 2004 that someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact. What it lacks in size, though, Google.org may make up in cachet.
Larry Brilliant, a medical doctor who took on the role of director of Google.org 18 months ago, said he could not even begin to count how many spending proposals he had seen. There are 6.5 billion people in the world, Dr. Brilliant said in a recent interview, and in the last 18 months I’ve met 6.4 billion, all of whom want, if not some of our money, then some of the Google pixie dust.
Dr. Brilliant, who moved to an ashram in northern India in the 1970s and went on to play a major role in eradicating smallpox in the country, likened his moral quandary in figuring out how to spend Google.org’s money to that faced by a saint wandering the streets of Benares.
There are 500 steps between the road and the Ganges, he said. On every step are beggars, lepers, people who have no arms or legs, people literally starving. The saint has a couple of rupees; how does a good and honorable person make a resource allocation decision? Do you weigh a hand that’s missing more than a leg? Someone who’s starving versus a sick child? In a much less dramatic way, that’s what the last 18 months have been for us.
DotOrg has focused on what it can do uniquely, said Sheryl Sandberg, vice president for global online sales and operations at Google, who, like all employees, is permitted to spend 20 percent of her time at the foundation or in other charitable ventures. If you do things other people could do, you’re not adding value.
In contrast to DotOrg’s close tie to DotCom, employees of Microsoft have made Mr. Gates wealthy but have no official influence in how the Gates Foundation money is spent.
The only urgency imposed on the foundation is how soon it can live up to the expectations. Building a new ecosystem is not an overnight phenomenon, Dr. Brilliant said. Here at Google if you have a project, you press Send. We won’t work that quickly.
But for all the enthusiasm for the new organization, there are critics. It’s wonderful that this company is devoting massive resources to fixing big world problems, but they are taking an engineer’s perspective to them, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia. Machines and software are not always the answer. Global problems arise from how humans have undervalued each other and miscommunicated with each other.
He pointed to Google.org’s decision not to take a step like financing scholarships for girls in India who have not had access to education. That’s what is so naïve about Google.org’s approach, he said. If you can educate a thousand girls in one state in India, you’ve already made a bigger difference than 99 percent of the human beings on earth because every one of those of girls can make a difference.
The process of determining what to finance was not easy, said Jacquelline Fuller, the head of advocacy at Google.org. Beginning in the spring of 2007, the 20 team members had 20 ideas. Team members, she said, debated, cried and held hands as we tried to determine what kind of difference we could make. It took them almost a year to winnow down the list.
Although it was just announcing its initiatives on Thursday, Google.org has already begun to give away some of its money.
That is the case with grants for the first of its initiatives what the philanthropy calls predict and prevent. This effort focuses on strengthening early warning systems in countries around the world to detect a disease before it becomes pandemic, or a drought before it becomes a famine.
To attain that, DotOrg has made a grant of $5 million to a nonprofit group that Dr. Brilliant helped to set up, though it is independent from DotOrg. Called Instedd, for Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters, the group seeks to improve data and communication networks. An additional $2.5 million has been awarded to the Global Health and Security Initiative to respond to biological threats in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and China’s Yunnan Province.
In recent years, Dr. Brilliant said, 39 new communicable diseases with a potential to become pandemic have jumped species, including SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome; monkey pox and bird flu.
What if we could have been there when the H.I.V. moved from animal to chimp to human and could have averted that risk? he asked. To prevent or abort or slow a pandemic saves tens of millions of lives.
The second initiative, called the missing middle, refers to the missing middle class in Africa and South Asia and the missing middle level of financing between microcredits and hedge funds.
Microcredit funds currently provide families with three or four or five days of livelihood, Dr. Brilliant said. No country, he said, has ever emerged from poverty because of microcredit. Jobs make that possible. China did it with manufacturing, India did it with outsourced call centers.
To that end, DotOrg has awarded $3 million to TechnoServe to find worthy entrepreneurs and help them build credit records and get access to larger markets.
The third initiative, information for all, is aimed at helping developing countries provide better government services by making information available on their efforts to improve health care, roads and electrification. India has promised health care, work, and transparency throughout, Dr. Brilliant said. Yet it’s hard to do something like this on the scale that India is trying to do, to let people know what their entitlement is.
DotOrg has awarded $2 million to support the Annual Status of Education report in India to assess the quality of education; $765,000 to create a Budget Information Service to improve district-level planning, and $660,000 to build communities of researchers and policy makers to deliver information.
DotOrg decided to finance literacy information because, said Lant Pritchett, a DotOrg adviser who teaches economic development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, We’re looking for things where Google could have a transformative impact. Ideas, flexibility, entrepreneurship are better than just cash on the table.
Google.org’s fourth initiative supports the development of renewable energy sources that are cleaner and cheaper than coal. DotOrg has invested $10 million in eSolar, a company in Pasadena, Calif., that specializes in solar thermal power.
The philanthropy is also working to accelerate the commercialization of plug-in vehicles. Google, whose own computers and customers use plenty of energy, does not want to be part of the problem; we want to be part of the solution, Dr. Brilliant said.
We’re not trying to bring returns to Google, Dr. Brilliant said. Profits are vital to businesses that will support the missions.
Mark Dowie, author of the book American Foundations, said DotOrg is part of a new mode of philanthropy that is very similar to venture capitalism, holding those they fund responsible in ways never seen before. The danger, he said, is that a lot of philanthropic work is not quantifiable. How do you qualify arts grant making, for example.
Still, he added, what would be worse is for Google not to give away its money, but to hoard it.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company