Google awards grants to boost innovation in nonprofit sector


Google Inc. signage is displayed at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California April 4, 2011. (Tony Avelar/Bloomberg)

The World Wildlife Fund, one of the largest wildlife conservation organizations in the world, is working to combat problems as diverse as the illegal poaching of animals in 100 countries and global deforestation. And yet, the Washington-based nonprofit only dedicates about 1 percent of its annual budget to research.

It’s not because the group has no appetite for innovation, according to chief executive Carter Roberts.

“We have people coming to us all the time with different ideas — not just inventions, but ideas on how to change the trajectory of how cotton is produced, for example,” Roberts said.

However, the group has higher priorities, such as funding field research and public education or influencing policy choices. Investments in technology can be rare in the nonprofit world, where innovation, if it exists, tends to focus on new ideas for fundraising.

Internet giant Google last week made a stab at changing the equation. It doled out $23 million in grants to seven nonprofits, including the World Wildlife Fund and a Smithsonian Institution project.

The World Wildlife Fund received $5 million to help develop animal-tagging technology to prevent illegal poaching, and the Smithsonian’s Barcode of Life project received $3 million to compile a library of DNA sequences to help identify products made from illegally poached animals.

Other recipients were Charity Water, Donorschoose.org, GiveDirectly, Equal Opportunity Schools and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Google said it selected the seven nonprofits’ projects because the results can be easily measured, said Jacquelline Fuller, Google’s director of charitable giving and advocacy.

“We’d like to see more ‘data-driven’ philanthropy,” she said, explaining that Google’s intent is to help the “entire [nonprofit] field orient itself around results.”

In the past, she said, “corporate philanthropy has been a little sleepy” — characterized by blanket donations to organizations representing a certain cause, instead of targeting donations to innovative projects which might have the “most differential impact.”

Corporations often veer from donating to technological projects and prefer instead to donate to more “emotionally compelling” causes such as helping children or the environment, said Julie Chapman, president and chief executive of 501cTech, a D.C.-based technology service provider with 80 nonprofit clients.

“When you have to choose between a very immediate human need and whether you’re going to invest in technology that’s going to help you better meet that need, sometimes the human need is so great, it’s understandable that that’s where people are going to give their money,” she said.

Google asked each nonprofit how much funding it would require to produce results in the next one to three years and determined awards based on their answers, Fuller said.

In some cases, Google’s funding will not cover the total project cost. The Barcode of Life project is still searching for outside funding to train and equip staff to compile the DNA database in several nations including Kenya, Nigeria and Mexico, said David Schindel, executive secretary of the project. But he noted that Google has been providing technological support — encouraging its employees to volunteer time for his project, for example — aside from the financial support.

For World Wildlife Fund, the award’s real value isn’t in the financial support nor the technology it might help develop, Roberts said. It represents a partnership with a globally recognized tech giant with international clout, he said.

“We work with these companies to send signals through the way we buy things with governments, to create positive incentives,” he said, explaining that he hopes to effect macro-scale changes on global markets to eradicate environmentally harmful products.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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