Google.org Struggles to Measure Up to Goals

Nearly five years after Google co-founder Larry Page announced the launch of a bold philanthropic initiative, committing about 1 percent of the company's profits and equity and a considerable amount of employees' time to it, the only thing that Google.org (DotOrg) has changed about philanthropy is its approach, the New York Times reports.

Launched in 2004 before Google went public, the DotOrg initiative was organized as a business unit within the company and tasked with tackling major problems, including climate change and global poverty. Google hired Larry Brilliant, a public health expert and TED Prize recipient who had no experience running a major charitable organization, to lead the effort, and in 2008 the company announced it would commit $175 million over three years to five areas in which DotOrg would work: predicting and preventing diseases, growing small and midsize businesses, increasing access to information and public services, developing renewable energy, and helping to commercialize plug-in hybrids.

While Google held up its end of the commitment — doling out tens of millions of dollars and in-kind support to charity each year and reportedly meeting its 1 percent giving goal — in late 2008, DotOrg was forced to suspend all grants that were not final after a review of the organization's operations. DotOrg also faced a number of personnel challenges. By the end of 2008, for example, most of the experts it initially hired had left, including Sheryl Sandberg, Google's former vice president of global online sales and operations, who helped design the original DotOrg concept in early 2008 and left to join Facebook. After poor morale forced Google's leaders to intervene, Brilliant was replaced by Megan Smith, a business development executive who devotes only part of her time to the program.

Meanwhile, DotOrg has narrowed its focused to working on engineering-related projects that tend to grow out of existing Google products, such as using Google Earth to track environmental trends and monitoring Web searches to detect the spread of viruses and disease. DotOrg also has developed tools in the wake of several natural disasters, including a database to track missing people following the Haiti earthquake and a map-based tool to help relief workers locate available hospital beds after Pakistan's floods.

Although DotOrg has changed its approach, the company says it has not changed its phlanthropic ambitions. "We are a start-up," Smith told the Times. "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."

Miguel Helft. "Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy." New York Times 01/29/2011.