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Mar 17 2009

Congratulations, Megan Smith, on your new role at Google.org

Published by at 9:09 am under Networked theory of goodness,Uplift

Dear Megan,

It’s great to hear of your new role as general manager of Google.org.  I have fond memories of our chats as fellow Fellows at Stanford’s Digital Visions Program and the Uplift Academy workshops.  (I took your advice about solar cookers and moderated my enthusism for them).

I’ve been tracking Google’s philanthropic goal to devote 1% of Google’s equity and profits to philanthropy for some time now, and even blogged a bit in 2005 about it when it seemed to be lagging: What Ever Happened to Google’s 1% Better World Funding? See my current report card from my analysis of things to date)

Recall that Google’s SEC IPO filing said:

“We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Google’s equity and profits in some form. 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.”

At today’s market value, 1% of Google’s assets ($102 billion in shareholder equity)is about $1 billion, and 1% of its income available for common for the trailing 12 months ($4 billion) is about $40 million.  It’s difficult to track this numbers from your web site, but I see about $75 million of assets in the Google Foundation, and the Google.org web site lists $100m of investments for its aggregate.  It seems like the foundation has only about .075 percent of Google’s equity today, about one thirteenth of what was promised in the IPO filing.

Maybe I’m not digging deeply enough, but it’s pretty hard to figure out just how Google is performing on its stated goals from the information.   I think that a much more transparent accounting model would go along way towards explaining what is happening.

Recommendation 1:  An annual “State of Google Philanthropy” explanation of how Google is distributing its 1% of equity and income to philanthropy.

I can only imagine how tumultuous things must have been at Google.org.  Establishing a vision and then acting on it is not simple in any case, and most philanthropists and foundations take years if not decades to figure this out.  Just as nine women can’t make a baby in one month, you can’t simply convene an organization and a budget and expect it to hit the ground running.

From looking at the web site and investments, I don’t see that vision.

As I’m sure you’ll be having various forms “vision” setting sessions, let me suggest some “framing” ideas.  One of the the themes we’ve been developing at the Uplift Academy sessions over the years has been the notion of “Search/Amplify” in contrast to “Plan/Execute.”  I talked a little about this in my Pew Internet interview and the Paris Uplift Academy Meeting.  The search/amplify model seeks out what is working and ways of amplifying these activities, whereas the plan/execute model develops a plan up front, and devotes its energies to making the plan happen.

Polio eradication is a great example of plan/execute.  We developed the polio vaccine through intense research and development, then planned and (mostly) executed the effort to propagate this world wide.  This kind of intervention is held up as and example of success and as a role model for other activities.  Gates Foundation (as well as Bill Gates’ personal predisposition to early-binding solutions to problems) is all over this kind of approach.

Yes, there is a class of activities that this approach is suited for.  But not all.  Figuring out how to create a large scale search/amplify network of fine grained better world activities, I think, would be a much more Googlesque approach.  We see glimmers of this approach in today’s social networking systems such as Facebook and MySpace.  This is what I was trying to prototype during my Stanford fellowship with the help of the Omidyar Foundation, but it never caught on.  In terms of building on Google’s basic search skills, this  leads to my second thought:

Recommendation 2: Google’s philanthropic activities should focus on a “Search/Amplify” model to seek out what’s working at grassroots levels, and how to do more of it. Let other organizations do the “Plan/Execute” work.

I also think that it is critical to frame the foundation’s basic question carefully, a technique I learned from Appreciative Inquiry.  I am not comfortable with goals seeking to achieve sustainability because they encode a certain pessimism to the human condition – that our goal for the future is to sustain what we had in the past.  Rather than this past-looking (what David Brin calls the romanticist) approach, I think we need to have a forward-looking (what David calls the modernist) approach – the best is ahead of us, and its our job to create a flourishing civilization.  Flourishing entails sustainability – but not vice versa.  We can “sustain” by living in yurts using buckets for our sewage, but a flourishing civilization is a different vision of humanity and our future:

Recommendation 3: Google’s vision should  be based on the modernist perspective of building towards a flourishing civilization, leaving a better world to our descendants.

Megan, I think you and Google have a unique opportunity to make a huge difference in the future.  Particularly in this time of financial turmoil and all eyes focused on the government to make a change, I think Google has huge potential to make a difference in building a better future.

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