Google Finds New Way to Give

Google recently announced that Google.org, a hybrid philanthropy organization, will be working on five initiatives to address some of the world’s most urgent problems. The news gained attention not only for the problems the organization chose to address, but the way in which they’re being addressed.

To give you the context of the most recent news, let’s go back in time to 2004, when Google held its IPO. At that time, company founders Larry Page and Sergy Brin told prospective shareholders that they were committed to contributing one percent of Google’s equity and profits to making the world a better place. That commitment, in late 2005, turned into Google.org. It was backed by the equivalent of three million shares of Google stock, which has continued to climb in value.

Interestingly, Google.org is not actually a charitable institution. It is a for-profit organization. It pays taxes. It does have a non-profit arm, Google Foundation. The fact that it is a hybrid organization gives it a certain flexibility that it wouldn’t have as an ordinary charitable institution. For example, there is nothing to prevent it from funding start-up companies.

Some have described this approach as social entrepreneurship. It’s not enough to merely spend money to buy people food, for example; a social entrepreneur would invest in ways to help people support themselves so they can buy their own food. CNet used an interesting analogy to describe Google.org’s approach: "Instead of just giving a man a fish, or even teaching him to fish, a social entrepreneur would invest in his fishing net business."

So far, as I mentioned, Google has chosen to undertake five specific initiatives, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Dr. Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org, explains the choice as follows: "These five initiatives are our attempt to address some of the hard problems we as a world need to face in the coming decade. We have chosen them both because we think solving them will make a better, fairer, safer world for our children and grandchildren — and the children and grandchildren of people all over the world — but also because we feel that these core initiatives fit well with Google’s core strengths, especially its innovative technologies and its talented engineers and other Googlers, who are really our most valuable resources."

Of the five initiatives being undertaken by Google.org, only three are new; two were announced back in November 2007. The first of these is an attempt to develop renewable energy to the point that it is cheaper than coal. Dubbed RE<C for short, the specific goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity for less than the cost of the same amount of energy if it were produced by burning coal. The one gigawatt goal is no coincidence; that’s about what it takes to power San Francisco.

It’s an ambitious goal, because coal is currently the cheapest source of electricity. Coal costs around four cents per kilowatt hour. By contrast, though the cost of solar energy has gone down over the past two decades, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that electricity from concentrated solar power plants costs about 10 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour. Google wants to see the price of renewable energy become competitive with coal on a time scale of years, not decades. In response to this problem, Google.org invested $10 million in eSolar. The California-based company creates solar thermal power systems that use reflected sunlight as a heat source to create steam which, in turn, drives electric generators.

The other new energy initiative in which Google is investing is named RechargeIT. It is focused on promoting the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and the spread of vehicle-to-grid technology. Here the giving seems to start at home. The company is working with A123 Systems and Hymotion to convert its fleet of hybrid cars into plug-in hybrids and to collect performance data to demonstrate their efficiency. Those cars will be connected to solar charging stations on the Google campus.

The company is also working with PG&E to demonstrate how electricity might be transmitted back and forth between plug-in hybrids and the grid. As with the hybrid conversion, this part of the initiative is still in the data collection stage.

Google.org is definitely investing money in this, however. It launched a $10 million request for investment proposals last fall, with plans to invest amounts ranging from $500,000 to $2 million. So far, the company has invested a total of $1 million with a number of grantees: the Brookings Institution, CalCars, the Electric Power Research Institute, Plug-in America, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Dr. Willet Kempton at the University of Delaware. Activities of the grantees range from educational to political to research and development.

As you’d expect, some of Google.org’s initiatives focus on what Google itself does best: getting information out to whoever wants it. In some cases, that makes a big difference. The idea behind Google’s "Inform and Empower to Improve Public Services" initiative is that transparency of information will help make the system work better. People are more likely to ask for their rights when they know what they are. That’s a crude example; here’s a real one, taken from Google.org’s web site:

"In Uganda, school textbooks and other materials weren’t getting to students – less than 30 cents of every dollar in central government funds set aside for instructional materials reached schools. Local government inertia and mismanagement froze the rest – especially in the poorest school districts. Then the government began releasing data on monthly education spending to newspapers and radio stations. Schools were required to post notices on monthly transfers of funds received. While problems remain, today almost every dollar authorized for instructional materials in Uganda is actually used to buy books and improve the learning environment."

Google.org’s funding of this initiative includes $2 million to Pratham, a non-governmental organization in India, to create an institute that will perform large scale assessments in the education sector; $765,000 to the Centre for Policy Research, a Bangalore-based analysis group; and $660,00 to the Center for Policy Research, an India-based think tank, to help policy makers make more informed decisions on issues of urban local governance and urban service delivery.

Taking advantage of its hybrid status, Google.org also pledged to help fuel the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises, as part of its SMEs initiative. It will do this by supporting efforts to lower transaction costs to invest in SMEs, create opportunities to access larger financial markets and make investments in this sector. In other words, Google.org is trying to tackle some of the root causes that prevent SMEs from becoming profitable investment opportunities. Geographically, Google.org is focusing on India and East Africa. Partners include TechnoServe, Acumen Fund, and Grameen Foundation USA.

To me, Google.org’s most exciting initiative is the one titled "Predict and Prevent." Like the Inform and Empower initiative, it takes advantage of one of the things Google does best: spread information. The company is trying to support efforts to empower communities to predict and prevent events before they become local, regional, or global crises, by identifying "hot spots" and enabling a rapid response. While the initial focus will be on emerging infectious diseases, many factors contribute to this problem: climate change, urbanization, rising international travel and trade, and increasing contact between animals and humans (nearly 75 percent of new diseases in the last three decades have spread from animals to humans, including AIDS).

So what does Google.org hope to do about this? Well, it’s certainly not going to try to discourage international trade! It is giving funds to organizations that focus on improving early detection, preparedness, and response capabilities for global health threats, such as InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters). Other companies receiving funds from Google.org include the Global Health and Security Initiative, and Clark University.

That last grant is particularly intriguing because of its cross-disciplinary nature; it is for Clark Labs to develop a system to improve monitoring, analysis and prediction of the impacts of climate variability and change on ecosystems, food and health in Africa and the Amazon. Google.org has big hopes for this system. It will be a prototype for a much larger platform that will deliver global environmental, health, and development data, information and analysis tools that the global community can freely access over the Internet.

There is no question that these five initiatives are ambitious. They play to Google’s strengths in that they all deal, to one degree or another, with the flow of information. Some observers have accused Google of selfishness in the energy initiatives because they stand to benefit tremendously, given how much power their data centers consume. I think that’s an unfair charge; sure, Google will benefit, but so will many others. There is nothing that obligates them to share their money and expertise with the rest of the world to make it a better place, aside from keeping their word. But they’re choosing to do it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. And that, perhaps, is the heart of their motto: "Do no evil."

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