Google Extends Its Reach Into World of Charitable Giving

January 17, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
Loading the player..., the philanthropic division of Internet giant Google, Inc., announced plans Thursday to distribute $26 million in grants to support initiatives in a variety of fields, ranging from disaster prevention to renewable energy. Larry Brilliant, head of DotOrg, discusses the company's efforts to expand its charitable giving.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Google’s efforts to become a big player in the world of philanthropy. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: With the unofficial corporate slogan “Don’t Be Evil” and a high-flying stock value, search engine giant Google is using its vast wealth to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges: global warming, disease, and poverty.

Just as Google says it strives to be a different kind of company, so, too, is the company’s charitable arm,, trying to be a different kind of charity.

The company has said it will dedicate 1 percent of its profits annually to its philanthropy, after getting it started with three million Google shares. At the moment, that’s worth nearly $2 billion.

Here to tell us more is’s executive director, Larry Brilliant, a physician and epidemiologist who worked on the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. He’s also a co-founder of the online community The Well.

And, Dr. Larry Brilliant, how is different from a conventional charity?

LARRY BRILLIANT, Ray, thank you very much for inviting me on the program. was started by Larry and Sergei, the founders of Google, at the time of the public offering with an idea that Google’s goal was to try to make the world better by organizing all of the world’s information.

But would have a chance to work on intractable problems of poverty, climate change, global health. And they created a unique or a different structure.

Instead of being a foundation using tax-advantaged funds that had already had a tax advantage, they created an organization that lets us make investments in companies, perhaps start industries, do public advocacy, a lot of things that are more difficult for a regular foundation. It’s a hybrid philanthropy.

Five areas of focus

RAY SUAREZ: Do you head into this world with a couple of broad areas that is going to be dedicated to working on?

LARRY BRILLIANT: We do. And, you know, we've spent 18 months trying to figure out, what's the right thing for us to focus on?

We started with a thousand ideas that were given to us by Googlers, as we call our employees, and by people from all over the world. And we've boiled it down now to five.

And two of them are in the area of climate change: an attempt to make electricity from renewable energy at a price cheaper than coal; and an attempt to increase the market acceptance of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, with the idea they'd be plugging into a greener grid.

We're also very interested in poverty in the developing world. And there's always a debate between aid and trade. And aid/trade, it sounds like a fight at the Ohio State-University of Michigan game. That's not what people in the developing world ask for, if you speak to them.

They want jobs. And they want better government and public services, water and education for their kids, health services.

So we're interested in trying to help produce the engine of economic growth in the small- and medium-sized companies that produce that growth by helping to fund it. So better government services, more jobs.

In the area of health, we have an initiative called "Predict and Prevent." And I think I'd spend a moment on this, if I could.

The last 30 years has seen three dozen emerging new diseases. We're familiar with SARS, or bird flu, or West Nile, but there's also Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, and, in fact, HIV-AIDS was originally a disease of monkeys that jumped to people.

We'd like to help to produce early warning systems that could help the world know where the hot spots are.

Profitable philanthropy

RAY SUAREZ: Where does the charitable aspect come in? Google is a for-profit company. It's begun another for-profit company that's going to look into technologies and developments that could have tremendous commercial value downstream. Where's the charitable mission?

LARRY BRILLIANT: You know, we do grant-making. The majority of the money that we put into service last year were grants, not investments.

There will be some investing, in that we're not restricted from making investments. And I know you called us a for-profit charity; that's not exactly what we do. We're trying to use whatever the right modality is to serve the right issue.

So, for example, in creating new jobs, I think the best way to do that is to actually make investments in startups in Africa, in parts in South Asia that don't have many young, new companies. So we're making equity investments.

Yes, there may be profit from that. But the real reason for doing it isn't to make a profit. It's because business is a better engine for creating jobs than aid.

And this gives us a chance to help young entrepreneurs get started. So the motivation isn't to be another way to make a lot of money, although we certainly don't mind if that happens.

Measuring success

RAY SUAREZ: There's a new generation of philanthropists around the country, and perhaps one of the best examples is Sergei Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google.

They are very concerned with how you measure success, how you measure returns, how you know whether the money that you've donated to do something is actually having its intended purpose.

How will know whether it's a success or not?

LARRY BRILLIANT: That's a great question. So in the area of "Predict and Prevent" and early warning, the measure of success is not how many early-warning systems you fund or create.

It's whether the world, in reaction to the next possible bird flu pandemic, actually finds that disease earlier than it would have if we hadn't been working and other people hadn't been working.

I'll give you an example of one of those projects. We're partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation in the Mekong River area, where six countries, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and southern China, are all banding together to form a group regional surveillance network.

And with Rockefeller and NTI, Sam Nunn's Nuclear Threat Initiative, we're building a system so that we can find the first instances in which bird flu moves from bird to human, and human to human to human.

And so we're using technology to help that. The InSTEDD Organization has created multilingual SMS devices. So if you text message in Lao, someone else can read it in Khmer.

These kinds of things are evaluated when they actually work to catch those diseases early. You don't measure your success by the amount of money you've given away or the throughput. You really measure it on the outcome.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Larry Brilliant, thanks for joining us.

LARRY BRILLIANT: Ray, thank you very much for having me.