from Stanford Social Innovation Review

Google’s philanthropy, dubbed DotOrg, launched in 2004 with bold ambitions and almost $1 billion in seed funding. But the corporate culture built by engineers proved challenging for the development experts brought in to run DotOrg. Six years later, the philanthropy’s leadership has been replaced and its ambitions have shrunk.

Do No Evil

… A company of Google’s size was bound to make waves when it stepped into the social change sector. Starting with the founders’ bold promise, there was nothing modest about DotOrg’s goals. Nor was there a guidebook for how to operate a hybrid for-profit, nonprofit philanthropy.

Is Google living up to its original pledge? Google says yes, pointing to $170 million in grants and in-kind donations made last year. But only a fraction of that came through DotOrg (and only $1.3 million from the Google Foundation), which was initially portrayed as the centerpiece of Google’s philanthropy. The rest came through more traditional channels, such as academic scholarships and grants, holiday giving ($22 million to charities), and employee charitable gift matching fund (up to $6,000 per Googler, plus $50 for every five hours of employee volunteer time). Surprisingly for a company whose mission is to organize the world’s information, Google claims not to have a tally of its charitable giving from previous years. This lack of transparency makes it hard to know whether Google is achieving its ambitious goals for giving.

“There’s a saying at Google – that you should fail early,” says Shellen, who left the company in 2007 to cofound a social media start-up called Thing Labs. This “fail fast” thinking drives the company’s product innovation cycle: Start with a promising idea, test, build on what works, and toss the rest. Now, Google has applied the same approach to improving its philanthropic efforts.

If developing new tools is indeed the best way for Google to make a difference, then DotOrg 2.0 addresses many of the structural issues that impeded progress the first time around. Embedding DotOrg personnel in cross-functional teams should yield more collaboration. The new plan also subjects DotOrg projects to the same rigorous review that helps Googlers develop and refine commercial products.

The current focus on tools introduces a new challenge. Not every global problem can be solved with a technical solution. By favoring high-tech, high-impact projects, DotOrg will likely overlook low-tech, high-impact solutions. The focus on projects “only Google could do” gives the initiative a sharper focus, but may smack of hubris or narrow vision to those who have been working on solutions for decades and depend on funders to reach scale.

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