Thinks It Can Engineer a Solution to the World’s Woes

THE BACKLASH CAME swiftly when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, pledged 99 percent of their Facebook fortune to philanthropic causes. At first, the announcement brought tremendous praise; if the couple follows through on their plan to donate $45 billion during their lifetimes, they’ll become the world’s most generous donors. But soon, critics were complaining that Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a private company, not a non-profit. That led some to question their motives.

The skepticism might seem surprising given the scale of their pledge. But rampant income inequality in Silicon Valley breeds cynicism about so much control being held by so few people. Even as tech titans from Bill Gates to Pierre Omidyar to Marc Benioff give away incomprehensible sums—and perhaps because of it—the question of how tech can best approach philanthropy become ever more pressing. approaches poverty and inequality as an engineering problem.
Google has been working on this question since before Zuckerberg had a fortune to give away. is the company’s pipeline for supporting nonprofits and worthy causes. Dot-org, as it’s called within Google, has been in the business of giving since it was established in 2004, and it stands out: Unlike the many foundations lead and endowed by wealthy individuals, represents the philanthropic aims of an entire company.

As such, Dot-org may have the room to be more agnostic, more data-driven and objective, than an organization headed by an individual whose passions may take precedence over rational criteria.’s leaders are experienced, idealistic, and invested—the personification of true believers. And what they believe in is the philanthropic version of the Google way. They approach poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, identifying opportunities and throwing brain power—and yes, cash—at the issue.

In the process, garners goodwill for its corporate namesake, which applies a similar approach to changing the world, but with a for-profit motive. The question is whether the same approach Google takes to making money can be just as effective when success isn’t measured by the bottom line.

The History of Philanthropy
Advocates of tech’s model of philanthropy say it takes a unique approach to the old endeavor of tackling social inequities, deploying business-tested, technology-focused, data-driven tactics. But while hyper-efficient algorithms might not have existed in the 19th century, the business-minded approach to philanthropy goes back at least 120 years to industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, writes Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift.

What is new, McGoey notes, is scale. Nearly half of the 85,000 or so private foundations in the US started in the past fifteen years, and about 5,000 more philanthropic foundations are set up each year. Research from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, meanwhile, shows that the rise in global philanthropy has “corresponded with a rise of private wealth in Brazil, India, China, and other countries.” In other words, because the wealthy have gotten even wealthier, they’re able to donate shocking sums.

New technology also dramatically extends the reach of philanthropists., for instance, is a lean operation with a handful of engineers, coordinators, and leaders. But it can reach millions of people worldwide.

Technology dramatically extends the reach of philanthropists compared to what was possible in the past.
In September, Google launched its first global matching campaign to donate $11 million to refugee and migrant relief organizations—and all it did was program a banner ad it posted at The company reached its goal within two and a half days after tapping some 330,000 donors. More recently, donated $1 million to Unicef to fight Zika, and dispatched a volunteer team of Googlers to help the nonprofit build an open-source platform that governments and NGOs could use to visualize where their resources would be best spent.

Exponential Improvement
Jacquelline Fuller joined in 2008, just a few years after Google launched its philanthropic unit with the grand idea of using its immense resources and talent to revolutionize social innovation. “We hope someday 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,” Google cofounder Larry Page wrote of Dot-org in a 2004 letter to investors.

But by the time Fuller came aboard, Dot-org was suffering from an identity crisis. It had struggled to carry out a confused collection of ideas ranging from an ultra-efficient plug-in hybrid to the Google Flu Trends outbreak prediction tool, which the company quietly shuttered.

‘Rather than move fast and break things, we launch and iterate.’
By 2011, Fuller was Dot-org’s head, responsible for managing its $100 million annual grants budget. Under her guidance, has focused on finding the best partners to carry out its social mission. Rather than go it alone, Google wants to work with groups that can capitalize on its expertise.

After working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and in government, Fuller says was drawn by the chance to dive into more ambitious projects while managing risk and leveraging data. “The approach is evidence-based,” she says. “There’s big thinking, [while] there’s so much incremental thinking in the nonprofit and foundation world. [The foundation world] is so focused on, ‘Fed X number of people today. Can we feed X+1 tomorrow?’ As opposed to asking: ‘Where’s the path that can get us to X squared?’”

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Miraclefeet, which has invested in, makes a low-cost brace that uses a non-surgical treatment method for clubfoot, and can be adjusted as kids grow. DAMIEN MALONEY FOR WIRED
How Google Gives
Today, gives away money in several different ways. Direct grants directly fund a specific nonprofit. Regional “impact challenges” tied to Google’s regional offices let the company be a good neighbor in a specific locale. “Global impact challenges” focus on specific issues of global importance, from robotics education and diversity in computer science education to homelessness and youth unemployment. This year,’s global challenge focuses on disabilities.

Fuller says this tiered structure gives Google the freedom to invest in nonprofits when they align with Google’s core values while also allowing minimizing the unconscious biases that may plague traditional grant application processes. Direct grants let Dot-org executives fund novel ideas from people beyond the traditional nonprofit world, while the regional approach supports nonprofits that don’t have connections in the tech world.

Dot-org, for example, has invested in GiveDirectly, which Fuller calls a prime example for a nonprofit with a sharp focus on data. It uses mobile phones to transfer cash to the underprivileged in Africa without government bureaucracy or overhead. The idea was based on a 2013 study in rural Kenya that monitored how income was spent, and how evidence suggested it improved their well-being. GiveDirectly was started by Harvard and MIT students who typify the well-connected, tech-friendly social entrepreneurs you’d expect to find in Google’s orbit.

Google is Donating $1 Million to UNICEF to Fight Zika
Google is Donating $1 Million to UNICEF to Fight Zika
Zuckerberg Baby’s Birth Comes With a $45 Billion Surprise
Zuckerberg Baby’s Birth Comes With a $45 Billion Surprise
Google Donates Millions to Help Refugees Get Online
Google Donates Millions to Help Refugees Get Online
Google Is Bringing Free Gigabit Fiber to Public Housing Across the US
Google Is Bringing Free Gigabit Fiber to Public Housing Across the US
Meanwhile, Dot-org also actively supports nonprofits that enjoy strong community support. Last month, for example, it pledged $3 million in grants to Bay Area organizations focused on eliminating racial biases in education.

Fuller stresses that offers more than cash. “We strive to be cash plus Googlers,” she says. To help groups achieve their goals, can tap Google’s vast pool of talented engineers and other employees.

Transparency and Accountability
But is Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” mindset compatible with charitable giving? “We need to be careful in philanthropy, as opposed to software,” Fuller says. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about the lives of people, some of whom are very vulnerable people. So the way we like to think about it is, rather than move fast and break things, we launch and iterate.”

And yet this is still Silicon Valley. And this is still Google. When I ask Fuller to talk about Dot-org’s failures, she instead offers a charming anecdote. “I reported to Patrick Pichette, Google’s then-CFO, and told him if’s plan were to be followed, 10 percent of our projects would surely fail,” she says. “He looked at me and said: ‘You should double that risk.’”
But if adopts a Silicon Valley posture toward data and metrics, it’s not an open source organization. Some critics say that’s not exactly Google-y. “Famously, Google can provide fine-grain analytics to let you get amazing data on the backend,” says Rob Reich, co-director of the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society. “If they’re attempting to have a public-facing mission, in the sense of having the social impact—as a learning organization, why bottle up all the knowledge within Google?”

And that creates accountability issues for and other big tech philanthropies. “I wouldn’t want to wish the Gates Foundation away,” Reich says. At the same time, he says, Bill Gates is treated like a head of state at many important global meetings—while, unlike an elected official, he isn’t held accountable to the public.

The situation at is similar. The company benefits from good PR while redirecting money into charitable investments of its choice when, if that money were taxed, it would go toward government programs that, in theory at least, were arrived at democratically. Tech philanthropy deserves scrutiny, Reich says, in part because we tend to lionize its leaders. “These days, our most celebrated public figures are the business titans of the world,” he says.

Google only files annual detailed financial information with the government for Google Foundation, which a spokesperson says comprises only one part of’s total giving. It’s hard to measure the success of Google’s approach compared to other philanthropic efforts, in part because of a lack of comparative information and possibly because there could be hesitation coming from the world of philanthropy to critique an organization that has the power to give out future grants. But as more wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few dominant tech companies, Google’s approach to giving promises to have increasing influence over the way philanthropy works and who benefits. More of the world will be shaped by giving, the Google way.