Google’s For-Profit Foundation

Stephen DeAngelis

September 19, 2006

Lots of people this summer, as they grudgingly pulled up to gas pumps and winced, dreamed of driving a car that could give them 100 miles per gallon performance. According to a New York Times article, that is the first project that Google’s new “for profit” philanthropic Google Foundation is going to tackle [“Philanthropy Google’s Way: Not the Usual,” by Katie Hafner, 14 Sep 2006]. Hafner writes:

Unlike most charities, this one will be for-profit, allowing it to fund start-up companies, form partnerships with venture capitalists and even lobby Congress. It will also pay taxes. One of its maiden projects reflects the philanthropy’s nontraditional approach. According to people briefed on the program, the organization, called Google.org, plans to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity and gasoline.

According to Google’s own site, not all of its philanthropic ventures will be for profit. This is how Google describes its efforts:

Google.org includes the work of the Google Foundation, some of Google’s own projects using Google talent, technology and other resources, as well as partnerships and contributions to for-profit and non-profit entities. While we continue to define the goals, priorities and approach for Google.org, we will focus on several areas including global poverty, energy and the environment. The Google Foundation has made some initial commitments, which include:

    • Acumen Fund: a non-profit venture fund that invests in market-based solutions to global poverty. The Fund supports entrepreneurial approaches to developing affordable goods and services for the 4 billion people in the world who live on less than $4 a day.
    • TechnoServe: helps budding entrepreneurs turn good business ideas into thriving enterprises. With funding from the Google Foundation, they are launching a Business Plan Competition and an Entrepreneurship Development Program in Ghana.
    • Water Research: The Google Foundation plans to support research in western Kenya to identify ways to prevent child deaths caused by poor water quality and to better understand what works in rural water supply. The research is being conducted by Alix Zwane and Edward Miguel of UC Berkeley and Michael Kremer of Harvard University.
    • PlanetRead: an organization seeking to improve literacy in India using same-language subtitling. By adding subtitles to Bollywood films and of popular folk songs, PlanetRead gives people who have low literacy skills regular reading practice. As it expands, this approach has the potential to reach hundreds of millions of people.

In addition, one of our early Google projects was to create the Google Grants program, which gives free advertising to selected non-profits. To date, Google Grants has donated $33M in advertising to more than 850 non-profit organizations in 10 countries. Current Google Grants participants include the Grameen Foundation USA, Doctors Without Borders, Room to Read, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

It appears that Google is ready to get involved with communities of practice that match its areas of interest. In an earlier blog about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation to tackle food security in Africa, I noted that they would have tackle the problem of water quality and availability — one of the areas in which the Google Foundation plans on concentrating. Another post reported the work, that Dean Kamen and Grameen Foundation’s benefactor, Muhammad Yunus, were working to together to manufacture and distribute water purification and power generation units that could be used in underdeveloped areas of the world. In other words, the connections are already being formed among powerful and innovative players. This is very encouraging.

Skeptics note that Google’s billion dollar endowment pales beside that of the Gates Foundation and yet seems to have equally large ambitions, but Hafner points out that the Google Foundation is being established early in Google’s life; whereas, Microsoft had been around 25 years before Gates founded his philanthropic organization. Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of Google.org, appears ready to leverage his group’s limited resources by seeking out those already engaged with best practices programs and projects.

Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, believe for-profit status will greatly increase their philanthropy’s range and flexibility. It could, for example, form a company to sell the converted cars, finance that company in partnership with venture capitalists, and even hire a lobbyist to pressure Congress to pass legislation granting a tax credit to consumers who buy the cars. The executive director whom Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have hired, Dr. Larry Brilliant, is every bit as iconoclastic as Google’s philanthropic arm. Dr. Brilliant, a 61-year-old physician and public health expert, has studied under a Hindu guru in a monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas and worked as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In one project, which Dr. Brilliant brought with him to the job, Google.org will try to develop a system to detect disease outbreaks early. Dr. Brilliant likens the traditional structure of corporate foundations to a musician confined to playing only the high register on a piano. “Google.org can play on the entire keyboard,” Dr. Brilliant said in an interview. “It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.” While declining to comment on the car project specifically, Dr. Brilliant said he would hope to see such ventures make a profit. “But if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care,” he said. “We’re not doing it for the profit. And if we didn’t get our capital back, so what? The emphasis is on social returns, not economic returns.”

Dr. Brilliant is an interesting choice for director. His background gives Google.org instant credibility. Hafner details his unique career, then discusses how he came to the attention of people associated with Google when he received an award earlier this year.

This year [2006], Dr. Brilliant was awarded the TED Prize, an award given at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, a gathering of leaders from the technology and entertainment industries. The prize awards three recipients $100,000, and a “wish” for how to change world. Dr. Brilliant’s wish was for the creation of an “early detection, rapid response” system for disease outbreaks. The idea would be an open-source, nongovernmental, public access network for detecting, reporting and responding to pandemics.

The kind of early warning system Brilliant seeks represents the type of information flow that any organization requires to be resilient. A resilient organization needs to understand what challenges lie ahead, when they might occur, and how they could affect the organization. Without that information, organizations must react rather than prevent. Resilient organizations are proactive. Looking at the groups Brilliant has chosen to team with, he seems instinctively to understand the underlying principles of the Development-in-a-Box approach. I hope his dream becomes a reality.