Google’s philanthropy skids

Jan. 30: Just before Google first sold its shares to the public in 2004, Mr Larry Page, one of its founders, excited the nonprofit world with a bold commitment to philanthropy.

He vowed to dedicate about 1 per cent of Google’s profits, 1 per cent of its equity and a significant amount of its employees’ time to the effort, which became known as Google.org, or simply DotOrg.

Google declared that for starters, the organisation would operate in part as a business, thus freeing itself from various constraints placed on nonprofit groups.

Google hired Dr Larry Brilliant, a public health expert and Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no experience running a major philanthropy, to lead DotOrg, which was set up as a business unit within the company. “Google.org can play the entire keyboard,” Dr Brilliant said in an interview shortly after his appointment. “It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.”

Nearly five years later, however, the hyperbole looks more like hubris. DotOrg has narrowed to just one octave on the piano: engineering-related projects that often are the outgrowth of existing Google products. Dr Brilliant was sidelined in early 2009 after his loose management style created much disenchantment in DotOrg’s ranks.

The company’s top executives rarely mention DotOrg, which is now run by Ms Megan Smith, a business development executive who devotes only part of her time to the organisation.

Although Google gives tens of millions of dollars to charity each year and says the overall company is meeting its 1 per cent giving goal, DotOrg itself is no longer making grants to nonprofit groups or financing new companies. Instead, it focuses on projects like using Google Earth to track environmental changes and monitoring Web searches to detect flu outbreaks.

Google says it has changed its approach to philanthropy, but not its scope or ambition. Ms Smith said in a recent interview, “We are a start-up. The aspirational goals in the founding of DotOrg are long term. Our hope is to get to that point where we could have the impact that our founders hoped.”

In the philanthropy world, many people have a more skeptical view of Google’s experiment.

“I think there were from the beginning two competing ideas about what DotOrg would be,” said Mr Joshua Cohen, a professor of law, politics and philosophy at Stanford who, after DotOrg was formed, was hired to create seminars to educate Googlers on issues bedevilling developing countries. “The first was a Googley idea that DotOrg would completely reinvent philanthropy and, in doing so, reinvent the world and address a hugely important set of problems with solutions only Google with its immense intellectual talent and resources could find.”

The second idea Professor Cohen said, was more modest — “that DotOrg could make some headway, maybe a little, maybe a lot, in addressing these really big problems by doing what Google as a company is really good at doing, which is to say, aggregating information.”

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