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Google.org Staffs Up

By Tom Watson on April 17, 2007No Comment

 

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Google.org Staffs Up
By: Janice Schoos

The concept of applying business practices to the nonprofit sector is certainly not new.  When I began advising JPMorgan Private Bank clients in the mid-1990s, there were many newly-minted millionaires who wanted to use their own dollars and brains to solve social problems.  What is new is the realization by those in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors that no single player can solve complex social issues alone.  Nearly all of the featured speakers at The Global Philanthropy Forum discussed the unique assets each sector brings to the table that when combined can multiply the overall impact.

We’re seeing more and more businesses acknowledging that incorporating social investments as part of their core business — rather than a separately managed foundation — helps attract customers and employees.  Investors seek equity investments in small businesses with social missions even if they might yield a more modest financial return.  Nonprofits develop commercial ventures that support their social programs.  The blurring of the lines between the sectors is all about leveraging the individual contributions of each whether financial support, or technology, or people, or access to networks or new audiences.  This collaboration and integration of social mission with commercial objectives has the potential to impact real social change.

The first day of the conference was highlighted by a talk with Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.They were joined by Dr. Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org.  The team talked about their plans to use the tools and technology of Google plus its staff (or Googlers as they are known) to focus its philanthropic efforts on poverty, public health, and climate change. Their talk followed a blog post by Dr. Brilliant last week, in which he highlighted some of Google.org’s advances, which had been kept pretty much hush-hush in the philanthropy world. Wrote Brilliant:

We’ve been in a bit of a quiet period during that time, meeting with foundation leaders, activists, NGOs, and scientists — and Googlers — from all over the world. My major task has been to build a world-class team, comprised of experienced Google managers paired with content experts from the fields of climate change, global public health and economic development to spearhead strategic initiatives for our philanthropic efforts.

Brilliant said the team is now 25 people strong and still hiring; among the professionals brough on board are experts in clean energy and climate change initiatives, policy and advocacy, global public health, economic development, and communications. The Google.org brief seems wide and growing, and clearly the company means to have a massive impact on the world of philanthropy – even as it stays resolutely a for-profit. Said Brilliant:

“So where are we going now? Google.org is looking to better understand the inextricable linkages among climate change, global public health and economic development, and the impact of global warming on the poor. We want to fund projects that are making a difference and that are effective on a large scale. We live in very complicated times. Global health, poverty, and climate are inextricably interrelated, and it is the poor of the world who bear the heaviest burden. Google.org is focused on learning initiatives that simultaneously fund good organizations working in these areas and provide insights into “big ideas” that could be scalable from these pilot projects.”

At the conference, the Google team cited examples of using technology to change the way traditional systems work such as technology that translates Arabic to English, and technology to detect outbreaks of epidemics through community-based information reporting. Google also unveiled its collaboration with the United States Holocaust Museum, which applies the technology of Google Earth to shed light on the atrocities occurring in Darfur. It incorporates high-resolution mapping imagery and photos of the people in the region to tell their stories of how their lives have been impacted. The goal of the site is to not only raise awareness of the issue but to also promote action for social change.

Since its inception, Google founders have told employees that their work should ‘Do no evil’ – that is, they need to consider the possible negative consequences of their actions. Google has revised that belief to now state: ‘Be Good.’ Through Google.org they plan to take advantage of the opportunities the company has to do great good in the world.

While the Google.org team acknowledged that they have much to learn about philanthropy, it will be their untraditional approaches and eagerness to look beyond the barriers of private, government, and nonprofit sectors that will develop into Philanthropy 4.0 and beyond, I think.

Meanwhile, the very definition of philanthropy continues to evolve. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, introduced the concept of Philanthropy 3.0 in the keynote address. Rodin recounted the great history of the foundation created by John D. Rockefeller and its need to remain nimble in order to continue to focus on root causes and address profound issues. She described Philanthropy 3.0 as an approach that acknowledges that no single player can solve problems alone. Philanthropists need to seek advice from experts, pool resources, collaborate with others, and listen to local people to learn from their on-the-ground experiences.

Iqbal Paroo, CEO of the Omidyar Network, expanded on the concept of Philanthropy 3.0 and stressed the role of philanthropists in helping to remove barriers so that people in developing countries can address their own needs.  Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, echoed Paroo’s focus on promoting local, commercially viable solutions that will only scale by providing access to capital markets.

The idea of Philanthropy 3.0 was further demonstrated by Jean Oelwang, managing director of Virgin Unite, the independent charitable arm of the Virgin Group. Virgin Unite is the result of Richard Branson’s desire to combine the activities of its 200 businesses to focus on entrepreneurial approaches to social and environmental issues. Virgin Unite leverages the skills of social entrepreneurs by linking them with Virgin staff, its customers, suppliers, and their network. Yahoo! also takes a different approach to philanthropy than other corporations. Meg Garlinghouse of Yahoo! talked about how the Internet company believes it can make the greatest impact by connecting its 520 million users with issues and organizations through Yahoo! For Good.

On the final day of the Forum, which was hosted this year at Google’s corporate headquarters, Sally Osberg, president and CEO of Skoll Foundation led a panel on “Mobilizing for Action.” It featured Richard Curtis, Co-Founder and Vice Chair of Comic Relief, who described Red Nose Day, a UK-wide fundraising event organized by Comic Relief:

“On Red Nose Day, everyone in the country is encouraged to throw caution to the wind, cast their inhibitions aside, put on a Red Nose and do something wild to raise money.”

Curtis recognized that the charitable motivations of entertainers are often questioned, but stressed that if done the right way, entertainers and the media can do tremendous good.  He stated that everyone should do what they do best to make a difference, whether it is telling jokes, playing music or writing a check.  Curtis has been instrumental in organizing the 200th episode of American Idol’s, “Idol Gives Back,” that will raise funds and awareness to alleviate extreme poverty in Africa and US, which airs on April 24 and 25.

Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, stacked Oreo cookies to illustrate $60 billion the US government is spending on weapons each year designed to defeat the former Soviet Union weapons that are useless against today’s threats and terrorism, he said.  Cohen proposed shifting spending from the Pentagon to address issues such as world hunger, education, and energy independence. By redistributing a few Oreo cookies that each represented $10 billion, the country could make a significant difference in these issues without leaving the United States vulnerable to possible military threats.

Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and philanthropist, reminded the audience that people of Africa are the same as you and me. Their voices should be included in any programs or decisions affecting their lives, and they should be treated with dignity.

Bobby Shriver, co-founder and CEO of Product (Red), said the only way to engage corporations in social issues is to demonstrate the value to their core business.  Shriver and Bono created (Red) to team up with American Express, Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani, Motorola and Apple to raise funds and awareness to help women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.  In the last nine months, more than $20 million has been generated for the Global Fund by purchasing (Red) products.

Former President Bill Clinton closed the Global Philanthropy Forum by sharing his personal experiences with philanthropy that include his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.  He echoed the common thread that ran throughout the three-day conference the need for partnerships between governments, nonprofit organizations, and business.

President Clinton strongly believes the best way to affect social change in the developing world is to organize and expand efficient public goods markets and to empower people.  He went on to describe his foundation’s successful efforts to organize the markets for AIDs medicines by suggesting pharmaceutical companies change their business model.  He proposed they adopt a low margin, high volume model that has a certain payment system.  The corporations agreed, and the cost of treatment for a person with HIV/AIDS dropped from over $500 per year to under $100 per year.

Clinton said we can do more now to help alleviate poverty than any other time in history.  Americans’ income levels have increased significantly, the internet offers efficient charitable giving tools, and there are many people and NGOs doing good work all over the world.  People of means, as well as those with modest income, need to be made aware of initiatives such as Millennium Villages, project of UNICEF, and philanthropic networks so they can help make a difference.

Commented blogger Lucy Berholz on Clinton’s talk:

“…the answers we come up with can not only come from the private and independent sector, we must not expect that philanthropy and social enterprise will solve the problems that our governments have failed to solve. Yes, they must be grown, recognized, and actively involved. But we must develop those resources and engage our governments, our public agencies, and our elected representatives. All three sectors must be contribute -all three sectors must be part of our ‘integrated society.’

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