Stephanie Strom and Miguel Helft have recently written a superb story for The New York Times about how Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org (or ‘DotOrg’), has struggled to live up to its early self-promotion. The story serves as a useful reminder that success in the business world – especially success redefining what success can mean in the digital age – might not mean the same skill set can bring success in the philanthropic world. The vast resources of the internet search company have had a wonderful impact on a few important projects, of course. Nevertheless, the staff of the philanthropic arm of the company have suffered from being a silo-ed community with an uncomfortable relationship with the business body.
Google.org was launched in 2004, just a few days before the company went public. Google’s engineers and board hired Dr. Larry Brilliant (what a name to live up to at Google!) to direct the philanthropic .org not unlike they were directing the commercial .com. The company then went on a head-hunting campaign that drew some of the top names from some global philanthropic organizations – but fundraisers and directors of projects.
Despite a couple of early successes (perhaps the most famous being the ‘Flu Trends,’ which sought to map outbreaks of flu to steer health resources to those sites and quickly stymie a pandemic), the DotOrg and the DotCom seemed to have corporate cultures that made cooperation difficult.
“I believe DotOrg was under pressure to come up with what was called game-changing strategies,” said Professor Simon [a professor at Brandeis University and a friend of Dr. Brilliant’s who took a sabbatical to work at DotOrg in 2007]. “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.”
Sometimes the lack of cooperation might not be viewed by activists as an issue: Google.com made a significant long-term investment to purchase wind-generated electricity in the summer of 2010 – a commitment that Google.org had been touting for a number of years.
Other times, though, the efforts by Google dot-whatever look pretty darn traditional: ambitious computer-engineering projects that raise profits, some of which get invested into philanthropic organizations. Which is not to pooh-pooh the impact. Google executives promised a 1% investment in philanthropic work back in 2004. Google meets that investment goal, and 1% of Google’s profits is a significant load of cash.
So perhaps DotOrg will shrink, but hopefully Google’s social engagement will not – even if its interests seem less ‘humanistic’ than philanthropists and foundations like to see (or perhaps ‘feel’). As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryput it:
An engineering mindset is great at tackling clearly defined problems with easily measurable outcomes. Philanthropy, of course, is the opposite: the problems are huge and hard to define, and the outcomes are notoriously near-impossible to measure. And you’re dealing with human behavior, which Google keeps struggling to understand, as evidenced by its failure at building good social products.