Gandhi’s Talisman

How Google decided what to give to.

See our entireSlate 60 special philanthropy issue.

Benares is the holy Indian city where many sick pilgrims go to die, to be cremated in the burning ghats on the Ganges River. There is a story of a saint who went to Benares and encountered terrible suffering among these pilgrims. As he walked down the steps to the burning ghats, he saw beggars, lepers, men with one leg or no legs, and women with starving infants. The saint had a pocketful of rupees. What should he do—what should any moral person do—with his few coins? Give two coins to a leper? One to a man who’d lost one leg, two to a man who’d lost both? Is there a hierarchy of suffering?

In many ways, and other donors face a similar dilemma. We must focus our philanthropic work in specific areas, but in doing so we inherently choose not to address others. With, literally, a world of possible causes to embrace, we began as perplexed as the Indian saint. We had general interests in disease, poverty, and climate change but realized that we needed to find a handful of specific initiatives within these broad categories. And so we winnowed a list of 800 down to just five, relying on a lesson taught by Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was once asked, “How can I know that the decisions I am making are the best I can make?” He answered: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it?”

Sheryl Sandberg, a Google executive who helped start, prompted us to do a study that found a “charity gap” in philanthropic giving. That is, the vast majority of givers believe the bulk of their donations help those less fortunate than themselves when, in fact, less than one-third of the money that people gave to nonprofits in 2005 went to help the economically disadvantaged. The world’s poorest are virtually ignored by the philanthropic giving of some of the world’s wealthiest citizens. So our first criterion had to be Gandhi’s talisman: How will our work help the poorest and weakest of the world?

Our second criterion is part of the Google DNA: Is the potential initiative a big enough idea? Members of our global-development team initially proposed investing money in funds that would finance small and medium-sized enterprises in the developing world, a terribly underfunded sector that has great potential for creating jobs. The reaction? “Think bigger.” The initiative now includes stimulating financing to small and medium-sized enterprises by finding ways to lower transaction costs, deepen capital markets, and catalyze the flow of other money along with our own.

The ideas that have the biggest impact have components that can be put to other challenges. In Silicon Valley, where scale is often used as a verb, we are eager to spend our seed money on infrastructure and tools with multiple potential uses. For example, our Predict and Prevent initiative (more below) is working to identify infectious-disease outbreaks, but we hope that its early detection tools can one day be applied to spotlight other types of threats, from drought to disasters.

Finally, we asked ourselves whether Google had a particular expertise for each potential project. We’re new on the philanthropic scene, and we want to be sure we’re truly contributing to the prodigious efforts already under way. In 2006, Slate explained’s somewhat unusual structure as a hybrid philanthropy. Unlike many corporate philanthropy structures, there is no wall between Google and That means we can use Google’s work force—from engineers to project managers. It also gives us the flexibility to do more than traditional grant making. For example, we can invest in companies that might earn a profit. We can advocate for relevant public policies, such as supporting AB32, which calls for a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions in California, where we have our headquarters.

Here are the five initiatives we decided, in the end, to focus our attention and resources on:

Predict and Prevent: We plan to identify hot spots where there is a high risk of emerging threats, such as infectious disease or climate risk, and enable a rapid, coordinated response.

Inform and Empower to Improve Public Services: Our goal is to use information to help spur citizens, communities, providers, and policymakers to improve the delivery of essential public services such as education, health, water, and sanitation.

Fuel the Growth of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises: As described above, we want to increase the flow of risk capital to small and medium-sized businesses in the developing world.

Develop Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE

Accelerate the Commercialization of Plug-In Vehicles (RechargeIT): We want to plant the seeds for innovation, demonstrate vehicle electrification and vehicle-to-grid technology, inform the policy debate, and stimulate market demand to foster mass commercialization of electric vehicles.

We’re new on the philanthropy scene and have benefited tremendously from the advice of experienced partners who have been working on these issues for decades. Now it’s time to ramp up our own giving!