Charity: Water Thinking "I'm Feeling Lucky" Thanks to Google Foundation

Google built its dominant position in American business and culture as a fashionable, tech-savvy player in the nerd-oriented world of web search. Now the company’s philanthropic arm is betting big on a clean-water charity that is every bit as sleek and trendy (see Google Foundation).

The Google Foundation chose the fast-rising charity:water as a recipient of its Global Impact Awards. Started in 2006 by a former club promoter with an extensive Rolodex, the organization has built more than 8,000 water projects in Africa, South Asia, and the Americas.

Technology was an integral part of charity:water’s approach from the beginning — perhaps one reason the organization has attracted support from people like Twitter creator Jack Dorsey and Napster founder Sean Parker. Workers already use GPS technology to post photos and information about each water project. But the Google Foundation’s prize, which comes with a $5 million grant, will take it a step further (read foundation director Jacquelline Fuller's IP profile).

As it turns out, many water projects built by charitable organizations are short-lived. As many as one-third of charity-built hand pumps are out of order at any one time, whether because of mechanical failure or some other reason.

But Google’s donation will be used to finance a pilot project to monitor about 4,000 wells charity: water has built in Africa. Workers will install boxes powered by a couple of 9-volt batteries at each site. The boxes provide real-time information about the output of the water project. Rather than rely on occasional visits, charity: water will be able to confirm that a well is in working condition with the click of a mouse. This, the organization hopes, will help keep the pumps running and provide information that will come in handy when planning new projects.

Is it any surprise that Google chose a charity that relies largely on social media to spread the word and GPS technology to provide transparency to its donors? Much of the Google Foundation’s work involves harnessing the company’s technological strength to solve problems — such as the Google Person Finder, which was designed to help connect people to their loved ones after natural disasters.

But the foundation has also spread the wealth in the form of grants financed by its share of company profits. Many of these grants have gone to causes like renewable energy. But Google’s partnership with charity: water is not its first foray into the world of water and sanitation. For example, the foundation teamed up with the Carter Center to help eliminate Guinea worm, a water-borne parasite, from Ghana.

The award for charity:water just goes to show that whatever the cause, Google likes to support projects that reflect its own culture — scrappy, tech-savvy, and willing to rewrite the rules.