Google.org

NYT has an interesting look at the challenges of running a philanthropy within a for-profit behemoth.  I'm reminded of an aimless heiress who has more money than she knows what to do with, earnestly wants to "help" someone or something, but lacks all the skills and knowledge that come from working hard at something from its inception.  How could she reasonably be expected to instantly, wisely, and productively contribute to the world of international aid and development?

Things started out so well.  Google was going to give 1% or its equity and "a significant amount of its employees time" to philanthropic efforts, called Google.org or just DotOrg, which they hoped would someday "eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems."  The article is not clear as to whether or not anyone prior to Google had ever applied things like "innovation" (either ambitiously or half-assedly) or "significant resources" to these problems.  Or perhaps it's the ambitious application of innovation and the significance of Google's particular resources that co-founder Larry Page thought would do the trick.

This starts to read like an Onion article early on.  We learn that Google first hired a Dr. Larry Brilliant to run their philanthropic efforts.

"Google.org can play the entire keyboard," Dr. Brilliant said in an interview with The New York Times 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.

On the challenges of producing measurable results, we learn:


"We are a start-up," Ms. Smith said in a recent interview. "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."

I've read a few annual reports from various charities and schools, but I don't think I've ever seen one describe itself as having "aspirational goals."  Twentysomethings have aspirational goals to trade in their Jetta for a Passat or an A4.  Most charities aspire to keep the lights on at their office so they can keep doing the hard work they've been doing since they started.  And this, I think, highlights the heiress issue pretty well.  When you're sitting on a pile of cash, you have the luxury of "aspiring" to whatever catches your fancy today.  When you've studied, interned, studied some more, published, and your only hope for personal sustainability is tenure at a decent school so you can keep studying in the field and at home, you don't waste much energy on aspirations.  You keep grinding away at the problem, and you keep working for a solution.

And Ms. Smith's little infinite loop of hope is cute.  "We hope to eventually achieve what our founders hoped we would; which is to hope that someday we're bigger than Google!"  Success!

Then we read of a common road-block when dealing with Really Smart People:

The plan never went anywhere, however, because text-messaging was not sophisticated enough to challenge Google's engineers, several former DotOrg executives said.

Such a shame.  Should've put a bunch of middle school girls on it.

The article goes to show DotOrg's efforts in a pretty favorable light, although the folks who were running it at the time all seem to be gone now.  Anyone can look back fondly on their failed attempts and blame the executives on the business side for lack of effort and engagement.

In the end, it seems most likely that DotOrg will wind up pursuing the pet projects of Google's founders and executives.  Stuff like clean fuel and electric cars.  Surprise!  Hey, I'd rather they throw their money at that stuff than have GM throw ours at it.