Google fails to re-invent philanthropy

The New York Times’ Stephanie Strom and Miguel Helft have taken a good look at how, and why, Google’s experiment aimed at reinventing philanthropy — google.org, aka “DotOrg” — hasn’t worked out.

The article in Sunday’s paper, “Google Finds it Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy,” covers the launch of DotOrg in 2004 and quotes company co-founder Larry Page saying he hoped to break new ground by “ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the world’s largest problems.”

The article mostly focuses on Dr. Larry Brilliant, a public health expert and tech entrepreneur, who was selected to run Google’s new foray into philanthropy.

The gist of the NYTimes analysis is that most of DotOrg’s projects aimed at improving health, promoting clean energy and the like didn’t go anywhere because Brilliant’s style clashed with the Google culture.

Maybe, but I suspect a bigger problem with Google’s approach to philanthropy was summarized by an “unnamed” former DotOrg executive who was quoted as saying:

“We concentrated on complicated engineering problems rather than large development challenges,” said a former executive of DotOrg, who left the organization after a couple of years and requested anonymity because he did not want to damage the relationship between his current employer and Google. “That meant we were creating solutions that were looking for problems rather than the other way around.”

I think that’s probably the real story — the classic mistake of a “solution looking for a problem.”

Brilliant, by the way, is now with the Skoll Foundation.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.