In Google.org’s Grantmaking, Plenty of Surprises

Credit: Sebastian Bergmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)Last spring, Google launched its Global Impact Challenge: Disabilities. The initiative put $20 million in grant money on the table for innovative organizations with “big ideas for how technology can help create solutions” to the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

The foundation recently released its list of winners and it’s supporting some really cool stuff. In turn, this is a good moment to take a deeper look at Google's philanthropy, which keeps getting more interesting. 

First the disabilities awards. According to the foundation, over 1,000 organizations submitted their projects for challenge grants, but only a lucky 30 projects were selected for funding. You can read all about the winners here, but there were a few that really jumped out: 

  • Ezer Mizion. This outfit is piloting an onscreen keyboard project called Click2Speak to help those with limited mobility and high cognitive function communicate more effectively.
  • Royal National Institute for Blind People is developing smart glasses to help those that are living with sight loss, yet still have some ability to see, “regain their independence.”
  • Leprosy Mission Trust received a grant to establish a centralized facility where it will be 3D scanning and printing custom-made footwear that will allow people with leprosy to maintain their ability to walk.
  • Besit Issie Shapiro and Sesame was on the receiving end of a $1 million Google.org grant to advance its work in smartphone technology that allows people with limited mobility to operate a smartphone with their heads.

Overall, Google.org awarded grants ranging from $150,000 to $1 million. And no surprise, nearly every winning project had a tech-heavy approach, which is a key way this funder advances its mission of applying innovative approaches to some of the world’s most pressing global health and development challenges. We see this a lot with tech companies, some of which aren't so imaginative in their funding (donating tons of product is one favorite strategy.)

But if you've been watching Google.org over the past few years, you'll know that it is a surprisingly dynamic and responsive funder. That jumped out at us in late 2014, when Google came in big to fight Ebola, with CEO Larry Page putting up personal funds. We were also struck by Google's stepped-up Bay Area giving amid criticism that local tech companies were fueling local inequities. 

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In terms of its global priorities, Google.org cites climate change, health and poverty as top concerns. And indeed, it gives heavily in those spaces. But it also jumps in to help with global problems that don’t appear on its list of priorities.

Take, for example, the foundation’s funding to end modern-day slavery. In 2011, Google gave $11.5 to combat slavery, which included an $8 million grant to the International Justice Mission in India. Those funds were directed toward the support of anti-slavery coalitions, direct intervention projects, and government-led rescue operations. It also gave $2 million to the U.S. Anti-Trafficking Resource Center hotline, and is on the list of $500,000-plus donors of thePolaris Project, an outfit dedicated to ending slavery and human trafficking.

Related: Funding the New Abolitionism: Who’s Giving to End Modern Day Slavery?

Then there’s the foundation’s surprise jump into the global refugee crisis, in which Google called upon people to open their wallets and donate toward the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. The world responded with $5.5 million in donations, which the foundation matched dollar for dollar, donating a total of $11 million to Doctors Without Borders, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children. That $11 million gift, by the way, was a far cry from Google.org’s initial pledge to help refugees, which came in at just $1 million. More recently, the funder has been helping refugees in Europe meet their connectivity needs.

Related:How Do Chromebooks Help Refugees? Google.org Has an Answer to That

It’s been interesting watching Google.org over the last few years. Is this tech giant doing as much as it should or could, given its vast wealth? Probably not. Almost no corporations are. But what we can say is that this funder's grantmaking is surprisingly fluid and encouraging to track. 

Related: Google Foundation: Grants for Global Development