Google.org and GiveDirectly Do great things in Africa
Jacquelline Fuller is a charming woman who has one of the best jobs in Silicon Valley or, for that matter, the world.
She is president of Google.org and the Google Foundation, organizations that dispense $140 million a year to worthy social entrepreneurs and non-profits. She also finances good ideas that aim to make the world a better place.
“Non-profits find it hard to get funding,” she said in a recent interview in Toronto. “There is a gap in the sector so we look for tech innovation to enhance their projects or operations.”
Her organizations are at the intersection of philanthropy and hard-nosed risk capital with discipline in the form of deliverables, goals and teamwork. She spent ten years doing similar work with the Gates Foundation and in government.
But at Google.org and its sister foundation, the use of technology to enhance philanthropic outcomes is the key to becoming part of the portfolio.
“We do not invest in for-profits,” she said. “Our profile initiative is to provide open-source capability and to extend availability of existing projects or pilots. If these investments work well, then our involvement leads to more funding for them.”
(Google Ventures and Google Capital — now called CapitalG — have portfolios of for-profit technology companies and operate as traditional venture capital organizations.)
“We fill a void and provide money and Googlers (as mentors or advisors),” she explained.
But like venture capital infusions, these non-profits can grow into sizeable organizations that are self-financing.
An interesting example of Google.org’s success involves an organization called GiveDirectly, which solicits global donations on behalf of the extremely poor in East Africa.
“They came to us with a simple but profound idea which was to unconditionally transfer funds to the poor via a mobile phone ‘wallet’,” she said.
The organization had devised a way to distribute aid fairly to those in need and, at the same time, eliminate all the intermediaries from humanitarian organizations to governments, dictators, or corporations.
Google.org’s first grant to GiveDirectly was for $1 million based on studies that showed a “trickle up” system of giving money directly to the poor created more economic growth than any “trickle down” models involving infusions to governments.
Initial results were positive and U.S. Aid got involved in co-funding with Google.org. Now GiveDirectly is a $40-million-a-year social enterprise that has changed lives by giving unconditional cash transfers to impoverished families equivalent to the average national incomes or roughly $1,000 per year. Recipients are targeted carefully, monitored, and audited.
“Direct cash transfers are random to the lowest income people and we do this responsibly by measuring outcomes,” said Fuller, who sits on its board of directors. “To measure, to insure these infusions don’t cause inflation, we use objective third party evaluations paid for by Google.”
GiveDirectly has also launched a $30-million pilot project in Kenya on a universal basic income scheme involving partners such as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The project will determine whether such a scheme can reduce poverty and improve living standards.
Google.org is involved in funding many other worthwhile enterprises that benefit from its capital and expertise, but also from its endorsement.
Other projects include working with World Wildlife Fund to protect endangered species from poaching through the use of technologies; programs to encourage females to become computer scientists; digital learning for the unschooled; working with marginalized females; and funding initiatives in many countries such as the Google.org Impact Challenge Canada.
These are technology “contests” that offer competitors a chance to pitch their non-profits’ ideas to win cash prizes. This year in Canada, there were 900 applications and five winners will get $750,000 apiece and another five will get $250,000 apiece.
“This is about using technology to solve problems,” she said.
An example was the Growing North project that came out of the Ryerson University DMZ incubator involving the building of a geodesic dome in the Arctic to grow fruits and vegetables.
Google.org earmarks $50 million of its $140 million for the developing world and recipients must demonstrate they are both sustainable and leverage-able.
“We help non-profit start-ups scale to optimize their impact,” she said. “And these people and their organizations are heroes that we are all very proud of.”
First published National Post April 14, 2017