Google’s guru of giving

Jan 24 2008, 22:11 IST
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Summary“What does a moral person do, given all the problems and suffering in the world? How do you focus?” Larry Brilliant illustrates how difficult this is by recalling a friend’s struggle to decide how best to allocate a few rupees among the beggars waiting to die in the Hindu sacred city of Benares, in India.

“WHAT does a moral person do, given all the problems and suffering in the world? How do you focus?” Larry Brilliant illustrates how difficult this is by recalling a friend’s struggle to decide how best to allocate a few rupees among the beggars waiting to die in the Hindu sacred city of Benares, in India. Such a place could hardly be more different from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California-with its population of geeky 20-somethings, free food, volleyball courts and fake dinosaur—where Dr Brilliant and his 40-strong team have at last agreed a strategy for Google.org, the internet giant’s philanthropic arm, which Dr Brilliant leads.

The strategy, unveiled on January 17th, has been a long time coming. The announcement marks the end of the beginning of a mission that began before Google’s initial public offering in 2004. As well as adopting the informal company motto, “Don’t be evil”, the internet search firm’s co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, decided to commit Google to engage in serious philanthropy. Innovative as ever, they created a new sort of philanthropic entity, a division of the company that could pursue its mission through both for-profit investing and making charitable grants. This, they hoped, would one day “eclipse Google itself in overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems.”

It would be funded with 1% of the firm’s equity, annual profits and employees’ time.

In February 2006, after a lengthy search, Dr Brilliant was appointed to run Google.org. Media reports focused on the old hippy’s colourful past, not least his spell as a doctor with the Grateful Dead, a legendary 1960s rock band. What attracted his new employers was his unique record of success both in running Silicon Valley tech firms and in implementing large-scale solutions to big social problems. In the 1970s, an appearance in a film featuring the Grateful Dead had taken him to India, and thence to a job with the World Health Organisation, where he helped to lead its successful smallpox-eradication programme. Later he created the Seva Foundation, which has prevented an estimated 3m people in nine developing countries from going blind. As a businessman, he ran two public firms and, in 1985, co-founded The Well, a pioneering online service.

Though he has taken nearly two years to produce a strategy for Google.org, Dr Brilliant has not been taking things easy. He may have added a taste for Hindu meditation to his Detroit Jewish roots (he once shared a guru with Apple’s boss, Steve Jobs), but he is a driven man, travelling widely and seeking advice from hundreds of people, pushing himself harder than friends say is wise for a sexagenarian. When he arrived at Google.org he found extraordinarily high expectations, a blank sheet of paper to fill with a strategy, and “microscopic attention” from outside on what it was doing.

Within a short time Google.org had compiled a list of over 1,000 ideas. These were reduced to 11, focused on the world’s “biggest, most imminent, least well resourced problems”. Each of the 11 was allocated to a different member of the Google.org team, who acted as its advocate in a process of further scrutiny and selection that Dr Brilliant likens to being in court. This led to the five initiatives announced this week. In these deliberations, the focus was on what Google specifically had to offer in each area, given its technological and engineering capabilities, mastery of information, entrepreneurial culture and global reach.

In broad terms, the outcome is not terribly surprising. Google.org will pursue five “core initiatives” in three areas: fighting climate change (a particular obsession of Messrs Brin and Page); economic development (a passion of Sheryl Sandberg, the unseen driving force behind the creation of Google.org); and building an early-warning system for pandemics and other disasters—something Dr Brilliant wished for when he won the 2006 TED Prize, which first brought him to Google’s attention.

They’re feeling lucky

Accordingly, Google.org has made a $5m grant to InSTEDD, a non-governmental organisation that is building a rapid-reporting platform to connect people on the ground with those monitoring pandemics. It hopes to raise the quality of public services in poor countries by improving the flow of information both to those who run them and to those they serve. It has big ambitions to help small and medium enterprises in developing countries. It is investing in the development of a plug-in electric car. And it has launched a project called RE

Each of these initiatives is deliberately high-risk and high-return, says Dr Brilliant. If the pilots go well, Google.org plans to scale up fast; at the moment it is spending much less than Messrs Brin and Page promised. Dr Brilliant thinks that being effective demands a narrow focus: this week’s announcement was as much about telling people inside and outside the firm what Google.org will not do as what it will. Among other things, it decided against getting involved in microfinance, which Dr Brilliant thinks is now awash with money, or trying to eradicate a disease (something he found especially hard to let go, given his personal history in the battle against smallpox).

In the 1960s Dr Brilliant bought into the anti-corporate zeitgeist, but “I must have been wrong,” he says. Now he believes that companies can play a big part in solving the world’s problems. Is Google.org, with its innovative mix of for-profit and non-profit strategies and political advocacy, within a corporate structure that denies it some of the tax and regulatory advantages of a traditional foundation, a new model for how a big firm should engage with society? “Let’s see how we do first,” says Dr Brilliant, showing why he has a reputation for being wise.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008

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