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We talked to one of Google's charitable investors about the company's $50 million plan to fight COVID-19, why it might spend even more, and why you should just give people cash. (GOOG)


google ceo sundar pichai
  • Google's philanthropic arm is thinking about investing more in the fight against COVID-19 after earlier pledging $50 million.
  • The organization is raising funds to give struggling families in the Bay Area cash, and it's also considering organizing similar programs elsewhere.
  • Business Insider spoke to Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, a principal at Google.org, about how Google is approaching the crisis.
  • Its philanthropic efforts are focusing on three areas — health and humanitarian response, distance learning, and economic relief and recovery.
  • Hoyer Gosselink also shared tips for ordinary people who want to help their local communities and neighbours during the crisis.
In mid-March, Google's philanthropic arm Google.org pledged $50 million to fight coronavirus. It's already considering spending more.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed the pandemic, Google — like other tech firms — has announced a suite of charitable initiatives and measures to try and combat it and provide relief for people who've been affected. A key plank of these efforts are being led by the company's charitable arm Google.org, and Business Insider spoke to Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, a principal at the organization, about its strategy, its plans to give cash directly to struggling families, and what ordinary people can do to help their communities.
Google.org's relief efforts are loosely arranged around three areas, she said: health and humanitarian response, distance learning, and economic relief and recovery. For now, Google.org is focusing on ensuring the initial $50 million is deployed — but given how the situation has evolved even since March, it is already thinking about what else it might do.
Google.org is also planning to give $5 million in cash directly to struggling families in the Bay Area, where it is headquartered, via a partnership with non-profit GiveDirectly. It's also thinking about creating similar programs in other cities, particularly those where Google has existing offices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Is Google approaching.org COVID-19 differently to previous crises it has worked on?
BRIGITTE HOYER GOSSELINK: Actually, it's been fairly in line with our prior approach, and the general approach that we take on — with the exception that it's the largest response we've ever had. It's our largest single commitment, the $50 million that we've committed to date. And frankly, we're pulling on more of our team and I think contributing across more areas than we have in past, either crisis moments, or even, you know, any particular given event.
Note: After the interview, a Google spokesperson clarified that Google.org has made two $50 million commitments before — for global education and for a work initiative — but both were distributed over far longer timespans than the COVID-19 efforts, around two years. "Our $50M COVID response is our biggest commitment within this span of time," they said.
How many people at Google.org are working on this compared to non-COVID-related projects?
I would say I'm not even sure we know that. But we've shifted a significant number of our team and resources toward it. For most people, it's a mix across their work as we pull on their existing expertise, or existing brand relationships.
Are you reallocating resources from other projects due to coronavirus?
I think what we're seeing is that as the magnitude of the COVID pandemic has really been brought home for all of us, this is just changing society in so many ways and creating so many new needs, that it's creating a new frame for our work across the board.
So yes, I think like most businesses, or philanthropies, or anyone, what we were planning at the start of 2020 is certainly not what we're going to follow up on. But the areas we're working on — economic opportunity, we have been planning to do some work there, that just now looks different. And we're taking different priorities forward. You know, work that we've been doing on applying AI, we're now saying, "okay, well, how can we apply AI and data to this set of problems in the most pressing way," rather than maybe some other areas.
But we're also finding that some of our existing grants and partners are bearing the same experiences, right. So, grants that we gave in past years are now either pivoting themselves to be addressing the crisis, or even just doing their current work and seeing an increase demand for it — for some of, say, our edtech partners, for example.
What's the strategy guiding what areas you decide to work on around COVID-19?
We're looking for areas where we feel like we can leverage our unique expertise as Google. We sit as part of the company, and so are looking in particular for projects that have some technology, or maybe an innovative approach, or really a data-driven solution that we feel like connects back to who we are as a company, might fit along some of our products, or other efforts that are happening.
And then we also look for places where we can use our Googlers uniquely. We are particularly excited for opportunities to have them deployed with their skills, and we have a program called the Google.org fellowship, that allows them to actually deploy full-time. We send teams — often a whole product team — product manager, and engineers, programme managers, maybe someone who does UX — who can actually go embed with that organisation and help them achieve their goals. We're doing that already for a couple of projects under the COVID universe.
And then we have three areas we've identified as well. That's health and humanitarian response, everything from supporting the WHO, but also some of the public health needs that are out there, again, leveraging that unique kind of technical experience that we have. We're also looking at distance learning as a category of work, and then you have economic relief and recovery, which is a whole host of things. To date we've mostly been focused on support for small and medium businesses and direct cash assistance, some of which we just announced earlier this week.
What's an example of where Google has used its expertise with one of these investments?
We made an investment pretty early on into a very old grantee of ours that we funded over a decade ago, called HealthMap.org. They're based out of Boston Children's Hospital, and are essentially a consortium of epidemiological researchers and modellers who are building some of the mapping tools, and essentially identifying cases and data bringing all that together to provide information that we know is critical for policymakers and other decision makers who are trying to help us all decide how to best manage the disease.
We actually have working with them now nine Google.org fellows. This is a place where we know that data and having the right technology, supporting them on things like privacy and security, is really critical to inform the overall work that's happening to understand the spread of the disease and that's a place were looking to potentially even do more.
Google.org previously announced a $50 million funding pledge in response to COVID-19. What's the timeframe for that to be fully allocated?
We're actually, I think, fairly close to being to having that committed, and the numbers change almost daily. But I expect it will happen relatively soon. And we are planning to continue monitoring where we can add value and think about other ways that we might want to continue to respond.
Once that $50 million is fully committed and deployed, do you expect to be making further investments and working on more projects on top of that?
Yeah, we're definitely thinking now about what is going to be required, right, as we all absorb — when we made that $50 million commitment even just a few weeks ago, so much has happened. And so, as we're seeing the ability to put that money to good use — continuing obviously to fill that out is our current priority — but really looking at how we can continue to be helpful will absolutely be something we're thinking about.
Google.org recently announced a fundraising effort to give cash directly to Bay Area residents who need assistance. Why take this route over other more indirect aid?
We've been supporting Give Directly since their early days in 2012 when they launched, and part of it is because cash is one of the most studied intervention models in the world, in terms of being able to point to evidence that shows that it's extremely helpful.
I think there's two pieces of it for us. One is that evidence that when you give people the flexibility to purchase what they need, the data shows that they're able to make the right choices for themselves in that moment, to prioritise needs that they have.
And in a disaster context, it's even harder than a typical one — in crisis mode — to know what someone might need. Someone might need to purchase medication, and someone else might need to pay rent, someone else need to do something with their car. It's just impossible for anyone to pick one thing and decide that's the service or good that a person might need, whereas with the cash, there's that ultimate flexibility. And with that kind of comes this respective dignity that, you know, you're sort of saying: "look, you know best; we don't."
And I think that's something that's really important and valuable for us as well.
The program announced recently focuses on the Bay Area. Are you looking at doing it elsewhere, too?
For the cash assistance? We are thinking about what it looks like to explore that. Give Directly was started here in the Bay Area working on their programme, and as a place just given, of course, our our footprint here, and we have been hearing a lot from Googlers, who really want to reach out and do more, and ... this is a good opportunity for them to come alongside.
Obviously, [we're] really grateful that Sundar himself decided to put some money toward that, and I think we've already seen good traction internally with Googlers donating to a cause. So continuing to think with our give directly friends on what more we might do.
Are there specific geographies you've identified or are you not that far along yet, where you might do similar programs?
Geographies, yeah. I think we are looking at a few of the other big cities where we have offices, and I'm working off that list.
What sort of charitable response has there been internally from Google employees to the crisis?
There has been an overwhelming number of Googlers looking to provide assistance in their own communities — really thinking about what they can do online for volunteering, right? "What's the remote volunteering opportunity I could do?" — some people finding themselves with some more free time, or looking to just find ways to assist even organisations they backed before.
So on even just this last call to donate towards Give Directly we saw, I think, just a huge upswing of people wanting to jump in within the last 24 hours, and we are continuing to see that momentum. We had to literally set up a whole separate internal site to direct Googlers to because we were finding that our own our own processes, our own systems, were getting so overwhelmed.
So we've been highlighting their remote volunteering opportunities, giving campaigns, and Googlers are able to set up their own campaigns for their local organisations. And then as I think, we increased the gift match this year, so the Googlers have more of our money to direct alongside those causes. And we've seen just an immense number of campaigns being set up around the world, and also a lot of folks standing out to those support those and also looking for ways to help give their time.

Do you think the broader tech business community is doing enough for the moment to help the Coronavirus response?
I think that every company is kind of taking a moment — every individual, frankly, is taking a moment right now to say "what can we do right now with the resources that we have," whether those are the products or services or people or money. I actually feel like there are a lot of different efforts and I can't really speak to other companies as much. but certainly what I can say is that I've seen a tremendous well of interest at Google in terms of really showing up in all the right ways.
What advice do you have for ordinary people who want to help — whether that's donations, volunteering their time? What are the ways you've personally seen to be most effective?
I do think direct cash, if it's possible option, and GiveDirectly is one organisation that's working on it, but there are others and I think continuing to look for those opportunities.
Going in communities to organisations that have been part of that community, so that's back to what I was suggesting earlier on, small businesses are really looking to those who are part of already the fabric of that and are already serving most vulnerable populations. They're often best-positioned to respond in a crisis so they can be directing resources through those existing relationships.
And I think also, some bias toward action is quite helpful here, right? There are a lot of groups who are doing a lot of great work. And it's easy to get caught up and trying to stack rank them and make some sort of list of priorities, when actually there's a lot of need right now. So as long as it's a need that is aligned with a particular organisation or individual's interests.
And I think the final thing is just for us as Google.org, having a clear expertise is a helpful lens. And I think individuals and other companies can have that too, when it feels right to them. For us, it's tech and innovation because that's who we are, but it'll be something else for someone else.
How has your workplace been affected by COVID-19? Contact Business Insider reporter Rob Price via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 650-636-6268), encrypted email (robaeprice@protonmail.com), standard email (rprice@businessinsider.com), Telegram/Wickr/WeChat (robaeprice), or Twitter DM (@robaeprice). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a non-work device to reach out. PR pitches by standard email only, please.
SEE ALSO: Facebook just beefed up its work app Workplace as COVID-19 lockdowns continue, and its chief says it can help companies retain their culture
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