Sunday, January 30, 2011

New York Times Takes Google To Task for Taking Philanthropy Lightly, Despite Many Attempts to Get It Right

In The New York Times' January 29, 2011 Business Day feature, Google Finds It Hard To Reinvent Philanthropy, Stephanie Strom and Miguel Helft reflect on Google's charitable arm's giving, since 2004 when one of Google's founders, Larry Page, described what that charitable arm, called Google.org, now just DotOrg, upon its launch, would do.  Strom and Helft consider whether DotOrg has met Page's 2004 hoped outcomes and achievements, but get from insiders who have worked for and with DotOrg, the inside scoop on some unfortunate findings.  As many nonprofit executives and fundraisers have known for years, things haven't gone very well.  The authors investigate from former DotOrg insiders what's gone wrong and why it went wrong.

For years it has befuddled many of us professionals working in philanthropy.  Why (incredibly) has one of the most innovative, impact-ful, and game-changing companies ever to operate on Earth not done more to give to the community, at large?  Heck, wouldn't it be swell if all of those wealthy Google employees, simply as individuals (capable of some phenomenal individual giving) understood philanthropy better than they apparently do.  Google, from the beginning, conducted its charitable activities as a for-profit operation rather than as a more traditional foundation.  The article states that DotOrg's executives felt operating as a nonprofit would stifle the charitable arm's then goals.  Strom and Helft's article does not elaborate why DotOrg's leaders decided this.

It does sound, though, like the culture at Google, 'innovate at the bleeding edge of all fields by Google's great trade, collecting and making use of data' (oddly) befuddled the engineers or staff at Google's Mountain View, California (main) corporate campus, when they reviewed DotOrg's work, reviewing grant applications, considering DotOrg's potential to do good, etc.  The article quotes different former DotOrg executives and employees (most of whom would not go on the record with their names for fear of damaging a relationship with Google, interestingly) as being mostly disappointed with the way DotOrg was managed, how little it was a part of Google, and how little interest DotOrg seemed to have from Google's executives and founders.  Of course, innovation, at the bleeding edge, and making use of collected data is ripe for real-world solutions to issues challenging communities world-wide.  What it sounds like, from the article, is that no Google executive understood (or still understands) how professional nonprofit best practices work, how modern day professional philanthropy operates (whether you're doing it via a nonprofit or for-profit charitable arm), and how to go about setting and then evaluating for intended goals in philanthropic operations (on both sides of giving: donating and then evaluating the recipient organization's program for its outcomes and lessons learned, after the grant was spent).  How is anyone befuddled with such poor operations management apparent?  It sounds much more like Google's executives felt an off the cuff need to 'give back', yanked a couple of mucky mucks from the philanthropic sector, and said, "Go do some good...".  Google's executives didn't seem to have much time, thereafter, for anything much else, the article indicates.

The article does generally indicate that DotOrg was never clearly defined nor included in the Google culture, at large.  DotOrg never had: a clear mission; clearly defined finite goals; expected outcomes (or ways to measure any outcomes); clearly defined fields of philanthropic interest where the charity arm would focus its giving attention; clear process or schedule to consistently, efficiently, but effectively involve Google's executives (and founders); and the charitable arm was never fully integrated nor managed to be an integrated part of the Google whole.

Of lesser importance is who's fault any of the failures were.

The great travesty is, of course, that, according to the article, there are causes and issues that are important to Google's executives (i.e. the environment, world health, green innovation, higher education, etc.) and those causes have, in all honesty, missed out because of Google (or its lacking charitable effort).  DotOrg's original promoter, Page, hoped "... this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems,” that the article quotes .  Page wrote this wish in a letter to Google's investors in 2004.  All well meaning intentions aside, Google, had real work to do.  Philanthropic work, the work of nonprofits, is professional business (all aspects of it) and no concern seemed to have been given to starting, planning, regularly evaluating, and hiring for a viable, professionally conducted, and goal-meeting philanthropic program.  One of the world's largest earners missed an opportunity, and according to the article, not just once, in its endeavor.

Have they learned?  Having learned any lesson that caused improvements strengthening DotOrg and its potential (per Page's ambition) would be a win (for Google, DotOrg, and the community at large).  It is not clear yet.  The article closes by sharing DotOrg's current leader's intention.  To quote the article, she says, "Yet for now, the high bar set by Mr. Page remains little more than a tantalizing target for DotOrg. “It is a pretty tall order to try to exceed the impact of Google,” Ms. Smith said. “But we are going to try.”".

I'm not clear why she intends to "try".  There are a myriad of bleeding edge, in their own right, philanthropic successes that exemplify how it's done, when philanthropy is done such that the donors' goals and the beneficiaries of the nonprofits those donors help win.  Also, there are tremendous resources in the form of community foundations (which most often offer its members excellent education and direction on how to give such that (once again) the donor achieves their goals by meeting the real and current needs in the community at large that interest them).  Google's leaders might have some school yet to attend, dare I write it.  While their brainiac talent are famous for being the 'creme de la creme' in engineering, it might be a thing for Google's leaders to understand that philanthropy requires many, various, well established, professional, and unique skill sets, for each given aspect of philanthropic work (which of course is vast), because obviously Google's leadership do not retain it.  It didn't take this Times article to point it out.  It has long been a mystery to any of us working in philanthropy where the Hell Google has been.  They are the ones who set out to give back.  We're all glad they've done well.  There are struggling nonprofits, though, working on real issues (and by the way, working with exceptional talent in their respective fields, among many excellent nonprofits) that could use a powerful, talented, resource-rich, and yes, wealthy partner/investor like Google.  Google's founders/executives might feel they're too busy to bother and why not plunk yet someone else into the executive helm of DotOrg, to alleviate their schedules?  As best practices on both sides of philanthropy have borne out, the fact is, Google will not achieve its philanthropic goals (whatever those might be and who is certain of what those are) until its progenitors take an interest, educate themselves to some effective degree in contemporary professional philanthropic and nonprofit best practices (and process), and actively get involved in an affirmative spirit in DotOrg's mission, goals, work, and outcomes.

As we all know, outside of Google's Mountain View offices, the world could use Google's interest in solving issues.

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