The world of nonprofits and social enterprises is aboil about new ways to structure funding, about public/private partnerships, and ways to tap private money for public purposes.
Into this ferment comes the story of Google’s charitable arm, DotOrg. It is the quintessential example of enthusiasm, good intentions, lots of money, very smart people, a commitment to changing the world and … not much to show for it.
The lessons to be learned from the case study, published by Stanford Social Innovation Review are several and old.
1 ~ You really have to shake the salad dressing bottle to make the oil and vinegar mix.
Mixing nonprofit and for-profit cultures calls for a vigorous, well-thought-out shake-up of the way nonprofit leaders and for-profit leaders work. Add in engineers, who don’t think like either, and you’ve got culture wars. Before you brainstorm ideas to save the world, you might want to sit down and talk to each other, just to make sure that “vision,” “mission,” “impact,” and a host of other words have clear, consistent meanings to all the players.
2 ~ Don’t look for bread at the hardware store.
Google’s great strength is it’s creative engineering, marketing, and willingness to take chances. Yet the company siloed its engineers and its products from the DotOrg charity arm. Instead of building on its strengths, it tried to create an organization that operated like a traditional nonprofit with a lot of money.
If you’ve got a hardware store, see what you can build with the hammers, nails, and funky gadgets you’ve got on hand, in this case, engineers with enormous resources, time to fiddle around with outside-the-box ideas, and a commitment to changing the world for the better. Don’t try to bake bread.
In DotOrg.2, Google started using its strengths: Earth Engine, using Google computing power to track deforestation; Google Flu Trends using searches for information about flu symptoms to track the spread of the illness.
As pointed out in the article, Google’s emphasis on technical solutions will eliminate some low-tech ideas. But that’s OK. Google is Google; it’s tech. The promising low-tech ideas can be passed on to other foundations or social entrepreneurs.
3 ~ You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
DotOrg tried all sorts of organizational charts and definitions of vision and mission. Some didn’t work. Some very good people weren’t the right people for the job. Some restrictions choked off creativity; other restrictions knocked some good ideas out of the running. But Google and DotOrg are still working out the kinks. They’re still trying.
Failure is one of the Big Ideas that nonprofits, funders, and social entrepreneurs must grasp if they want to create really new, really effective solutions to complex social problems. Such ideas will not emerge, perfectly formed, from any single organization. They will require trial and error, and collaboration. They will require engineers and social workers and village leaders and designers and … everyone.
Balance in all things. Google’s DotOrg did some good things, not the least of which is funding both nonprofit organizations and for-profit social enterprises. Social enterprises have community benefits, latitude, survivability, and potential that are different from and, in some cases, better than the nonprofit model. Both are needed.
How do you think corporate philanthropies should structure their giving?