Inclusion or Illusion? A Look At Google's $1 Billion Philanthropic Game Plan

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When Google.org announced $50 million in workforce development grants this August, it called the effort its largest giving initiative to date, together with an earlier $50 million grant to close the global education gap. The combined sum, $100 million, is hardly chump change, but now, the tech giant has upped the ante once again. CEO Sundar Pichai recently illuminated the company’s philanthropic game plan and set a bold target: $1 billion in nonprofit grants over the next five years centered on education, economic opportunity, and inclusion.

Google is doubling down on closing gaps—whether between jobs and workforce skills in the U.S. or between educational outcomes worldwide—and it’s not alone. Major corporations, including tech firms like Microsoft and banks like JPMorgan Chase, have emerged as leaders in this space. On the workforce front, JPMorgan’s $250 million New Skills at Work initiative has led the charge. Meanwhile, a number of big companies have laid out ambitious plans to upskill workers and young people worldwide, including by expanding access to technology, which is the focus of Microsoft's revamped and expanded corporate philanthropy. 

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Corporations can enjoy big PR dividends when they roll out grand philanthropic plans, and Google could certainly use some good press right now. It's come under increasing fire from critics who view it as a threat to open markets, personal privacy, and even to democracy itself. It's also facing pressures overseas for engaging in alleged tax avoidance, including being slapped with a massive penalty by the European Union.  

Given all this, what should we make of Google's big new announcement?

Skeptics rightly wonder whether corporations ever really live up to their big charitable promises. That question can be very hard to answer, given how opaque corporate giving tends to be. But based on closely reporting on recent seismic shifts in business philanthropy, we can say that many companies clearly do get the need to build more inclusive economies around the world. And while their bottom-line practices still often work at odds with that goal, their philanthropic arms are getting increasingly sophisticated about advancing inclusion. 

RelatedHere's What You Need to Know About Corporate Philanthropy Right Now

Google offers a great case study. 

As Pichai announced Google’s $1 billion commitment at its Pittsburgh offices, the company also unveiled Grow With Google, a set of online of job training and entrepreneurship resources that it’s actively promoting in several post-industrial cities. Google employees will also devote a million volunteer hours to support the company’s charitable projects. 

Watchers of tech philanthropy will note that Google’s sizable commitment bears the distinct imprint of the 1+1+1 model, a pattern of giving that’s rapidly becoming the new normal in Silicon Valley. As Marc Benioff conceived it for Salesforce, the model involves devoting 1 percent of equity, 1 percent of product and 1 percent of employee time to charity. Embodied in the Pledge 1% campaign, 1+1+1 envisions giving back as a deeply embedded part of corporate culture, not just something billionaire CEOs do after they retire.

Google, in fact, was quick to join Benioff’s effort. Larry Page and Sergey Brin pledged a percentage of the company’s equity to philanthropy before its 2004 IPO, earmarking $1 billion for Google.org (founded in 2005) to draw upon. While Pledge 1% fizzled for a number of years, a renewed campaign since 2014 has seen over 1,500 tech companies take the pledge, many of them relatively recent start-ups and newcomers to philanthropy.

Related: Taking the Pledge: Inside the Next Big Wave of Tech Philanthropy

There is an element of self-interest in all of this. Building a workforce fit for the digital economy improves the talent pool available to these companies. And providing digital solutions to educational challenges in the developing world (and here at home) is also a chance to secure future markets. But the fact remains that companies like Google, Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase, by virtue of their sheer size, have certain advantages when it comes to delivering on these promises. 

Take Google on workforce development. Most of us, myself included, begin our daily quests for knowledge on the company’s search page. With its “Google for Jobs” feature, and now with Grow With Google, the company is already leveraging its vast online reach to complement its actual grantmaking.

Major corporate funders are backing digital platforms for workforce and skills development. One example we've reported on is Microsoft and LinkedIn’s collaboration with the Markle Foundation on Skillful, or JPMorgan Chase’s support for the BankingOnMyCareer and Petrochemworks platforms. Combining its Search expertise with targeted grantmaking could make Google a major contender in this space.

At the same time, while Google may lack other companies’ ubiquitous physical presence (think JPMorgan), it’s partnering with national nonprofits like Goodwill to make up for that. The current commitment to Goodwill includes a $10 million grant and aid from 1,000 employee volunteers. 

As Pichai put it, “Goodwill has phenomenal reach. Over 80 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of its centers. And it has a long record of helping people who despaired of ever getting work again. With our support, it will be able to offer 1.2 million people digital skills and career opportunities in all 156 Goodwills across every state over the next three years.” In addition to Goodwill, Google is rolling out $20 million for organizations like UNHCR, Learning Equality and Room to Read.

It's worth noting that Goodwill is also a major partner of the Walmart Foundation in tackling some of these same challenges. Walmart, as we've reported extensively, is another top U.S. company that's overhauled its philanthropic strategy over the past five years and become much more strategic about advancing an inclusion agenda (in its case, with a big focus on women.) While it's hard to look past Walmart's low-road labor practices, this is a striking development.

In a sign of the times, Google’s announcement included a pointed commitment to inclusion. That’s not a surprise, perhaps, considering its recent controversies regarding gender equity and the larger goals of its giving. We’ve written about Google.org's partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to extend protections to workers in the gig economy. The company has also supported the Equal Justice Initiative and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, among others, in efforts to study and counter hate.

Related: In Google.org’s Grantmaking, Plenty of Surprises