Thanks for the $20 million, but...

Google announced (very quietly) yesterday that they would take the money that they normally spend on creative gifts and lavish parties for their advertising partners and instead give the funds to a list of charitable organizations. Google explained on the announcement page for the gift that they would give $20 million to a list of approximately 25 charities.  They also offered this brief explanation:

“This gift is for someone very special: Everyone. Because charities are experiencing their toughest year in decades, we have committed $20 million to helping those who help us all. Our gift to you is a gift to them. Happy Holidays.”

Google's decision to give a big chunk of money to charity this year was incredibly generous -- and I believe done for all the right reasons (in the words of Beth Kanter, it was not 'cause washing').  It was also lazy.

Google is right -- this has been one of the worst years in recent memory in terms of fundraising for nonprofits. Donations to nearly every type of charity are down, in some cases fundraising has hit lows we haven't seen in a half-century. Money can help ease some of the pain, but its not the gift that nonprofits and charities would benefit most from -- and thus, the 'everone' that Google has generously offered the gift on behalf of, won't benefit as much either.

Economists argue that the majority of money spent on gifts for others is wasted. Why?  Because gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences.  We have become a culture, especially in the United States, where gift giving is expected.  But when you ask the recipient, receiving the right gift is far more important than receiving a big gift, or a lot of gifts.

And that's my piont.  Google gave a generous gift, but it wasn't the right gift.

You see, the economy is a big part of the reason why people aren't giving as much money to charity. But there are other important reasons why organizations are having trouble raising money this year. Back in August I wrote a post entitled "Its not (just) the economy, stupid," about the many reasons, beyond the economic slowdown, that nonprofit and charitable organizations were having trouble raising money. Then, in November, I offered some thoughts on "What's Wrong With the Analysis of "What's Wrong With Charitable Giving-and How to Fix It" and suggested that dumping more money into a bad system wasn't going to fix anythning.

That's what Google did -- they made a large, and very generous donation, that won't address the real issues that exist for nonprofits.  What a wasted opportunity.

I talk/write all the time that everything about how we communicate, get and share information, engage each other -- online and offline -- has changed because of the role that technology and the internet play in our lives. And it continues to change. Information moves faster, people are more closely connected, and the expectations we all have for where we will donate, who will we trust, and what kind of relationship and support we want from an organization is changing. That means how organizations operate, educate, engage, and look at directing supporters and donors to take action must change as well.

We can use the tools that are now widely available online to conduct campaigns, and send notices, raise awareness of issues or solicit funds, and do so more efficiently and cost effectively than ever before. But, that doesn't mean that work should take priority over developing relationships and providing value to our audiences. We have prioritized telling a quick story that suggests progress over investing in long-term impact that both changes the world and drives people towards deeper commitments to organizations. We have become too accustomed to measuring success based on the size or popularity of an organization and not the value that the audience, who we rely on for support and donations, places on the work that groups are doing. As long as groups continue to focus on these wrong efforts, or blame the economy for its larger issues, nonprofits will continue to struggle.

Most nonprofit organizations don't understand that.

You know who does?  Google.

If Google wanted to give a really meaningful gift, they would help nonprofits and charities to understand how to navigate our rapidly changing, information-driven world.  Google could have deployed its super nerds to nonprofits across the country to help them re-think their approaches to information, organzing, and fundraising.  They could have acknowledged that their tools, while powerful, are not the solution to many of the challenges that nonprofits face, and helped direct organizations to make smarter choices with how they use their time (and their tools).  If Google didn't feel that they knew enough about how nonprofits work to offer that kind of supoprt, they could have made it possible for the people who do - the consultants, practioners, nonprofits who have had success, etc - to work directly with organizations who need more help.  In short, there were lots of options for how Google could have supported worth nonprofits and charities around the country.  Cash is only one, and in a lot of ways, is the gift that will have the smallest impact.

The best gift Google could have given, to the 25 nonprofits on their list, and the 'everyone' who they gave the gift on behalf of, would have been knowledge, and energy, and time, and support. Google appears to have an abundance of that.  What nonprofits don't need more of are tools.  What nonprofits won't benefit as much from is cash.  What nonprofits don't know how to harness and convert into long-term, sustainable support is  We have plenty of tools, cash, and attention. What we don't have are real solutions to the challenges that our society is facing, and deep, system-wide understanding among the organizations who are on the front lines battling every day. 

I'm not suggesting Google take back the $20 million -- that is a generous gift, and I am sure the groups who receive the money will use it wisely.  Rather, I am suggesting that Google use the $20 million as a starting point to do something more, and better, to help re-shape our society and have the kind of impact that 'everyone' wants to see.

Consider yourself challenged.  Happy holidays.

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4 Comments

  • Justin Fure

    What is more valuable to a non-profit at this time of year; volunteered service or $800,000? Just like you were talking about, a vast majority of non-profits are being hit really badly with less and less support...

    So let's pretend your non-profit organization was presented with two options from google... (1) receive $800,000 (if google spread the 20-million evenly between the 25 charities) You can spend that on catching up from financially being in the RED this year due to non successful fundraising. Also, you can receive your required funds to [enter in your biggest financial need here] you've been fundraising for the past 5 years! orrrrr (2) receive consulting from our Google staff that will help you "to understand how to navigate our rapidly changing, information-driven world".

    What would your organization choose???

  • Paul Steinbrueck

    Hasn't Google already done "something more, and better, to help re-shape our society and have the kind of impact that 'everyone' wants to see?"

    Google has transformed society with its search engine, maps, analytics, Blogger, YouTube, Gmail, and more. It makes all these tools available to everyone, including non-profits, for free. They have led to amazing improvements in productivity.

    There are a lot of amazing non-profits which are making a huge impact on issues like poverty, clean drinking water, AIDS, orphans. Many of them have harnessed tools created by Google as well as social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to build and network of people who support their causes.

    I think it's great Google has given $20m to charity, but their for-profit business has benefited charities a million times more than that already.

  • Bob McInnis

    I agree with your premise that Google could have done so much more with the $20 Million. I am not at all sure that I agree that "the groups who receive the money I am sure will be use it wisely." I appreciate a couple spelling errors in your blog as it demonstrates some spontaneity in your flow.

  • Emma Lathan

    Couldn't agree with you more - even though it looks like I'm reading a rough copy with spelling errors and all! :)