Google.org shatters the traditional CSR mold in a variety of ground-breaking ways. Jen gives you a glimpse into the future of corporate philanthropy as she explains how to tap into every employee’s unique potential.
Jen Carter is the global head of technology and volunteering at Google.org, the social impact arm of Google. She founded the Google.org Fellowship and pioneers new ways companies can use their technical expertise to contribute to nonprofits around the world.
Follow Jen on LinkedIn
Get a primer on employee resource groups
Learn about the disability rights movement
Read the story of the healthcare.gov launch and crash
Explore The Trevor Project
Dig into the research from Morehouse School of Medicine on the racial disparities of COVID-19
Learn more about the Google Impact Challenge
Learn more about direct cash transfers with GiveDirectly
Discover the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Explore the Pledge 1% movement
Learn more about NASA’s mission to put an astronaut on the moon
Subscribe to Sam's Newsletter
Check out Give from Submittable
The fact checking organizations Jen mentions:
[MUSIC PLAYING] NEIL ARMSTRONG (ON INTERCOM): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
SAM CAPLAN: In the 1960s, when NASA was preparing to put astronauts on the moon for the first time, they worried that the Lunar Module, when it landed, might sink out of sight. They didn't actually know what the moon was made of. For all they knew, it could be lunar quicksand.
It's easy to forget all the uncertainty that surrounded that iconic mission. The story that's ingrained in our collective consciousness is so focused on the triumph, we forget how much we didn't know. This is the problem with hindsight. We think it's 20/20, but it's perpetually skewed by a sense of inevitability. When we look back, we gloss over the challenges, the risks, the possibility of failure.
Today, when we think about the moon landing, we think about the footprints, the flag, Neil Armstrong's voice crackling through the air waves. But it's worth remembering, too, all the years of planning that led up to that moment, the doubt, the impossibility of the mission before it happened. For corporate social responsibility professionals, it's particularly important to keep this balanced perspective to remember that the outcomes which seem inevitable today were considered unachievable not so long ago.
Jen Carter, global head of technology and volunteering at Google.org, has built a groundbreaking CSR program by operating with this mindset. She and her team continually set sights on new horizons and put in the work to get there.
Welcome to Impact Studio. I'm your host, Sam Caplan, vice president of social impact at Submittable. In this episode, Jen Carter shares how she and her team have built a CSR program at Google centered on making a transformative impact for the community, for employees, and for the business.
As a company that has helped shaped the digital landscape at a global scale, Google holds a tremendous amount of influence. Other companies pay attention to what Google does and how they do it. This unique position allows Google's CSR team to not only make a big impact with its CSR programs but to transform how the whole corporate sector thinks about social change.
JEN CARTER: We believe philanthropy is in a unique position to take these risky longer-term bets. If you compare with other sources of funding, like government, they generally need to show taxpayers that the money is going to proven solutions. Or if you think about private investors, they need to operate typically on shorter timelines and have to make financial returns. So philanthropy, in terms of where it stands out, it's that you can really put impact first and have some patience there.
So we tend to think of a lot of our work as risk capital. It works very well at Google. Generally, Google is a place that has a big appetite for risky bets. We call them moonshots. So from Google AdWords' earliest days, we've really looked for places where we can test out new ideas and direct risk capital toward big problems.
Another framing of it-- I think there's $75 billion, I want to say-- I think my stat might be from 2019-- but $75 billion that went from philanthropy in 2019. But that was a very small percentage of the total funding if you incorporate government funding or other forms, so I think $4.5 trillion that same year that the US government spent on some of these issues.
And so it's a lot of money. And it's also not a lot of money relative to the scale of some of these issues. And so we think that we can make these catalytic investments, that we can test out new ideas, and that we can build proofs of concept that then others can invest in more heavily.
SAM CAPLAN: From the beginning, Google has been focused on building for the long term. Employee empowerment is a big part of that strategy. And it extends into their CSR programs. Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm, houses all of Google's social impact efforts. It's built on Google's culture of innovation and individuality where every employee can bring their unique talents and skills to the work.
JEN CARTER: Google.org is Google's philanthropic arm. And our goal is to bring the best of Google to innovative nonprofits and civic entities who are tackling the world's toughest challenges. And we do that in a few ways. First-- by providing our grant dollars. So 1% of profit goes for good. Second-- by providing our products, si Google Workspace for nonprofits and other products like that.
And then finally, by providing what we think is our most valuable resource, which is our people. And so our team is structured in that way as well. We have folks globally who focus on each of these area-- giving grants, giving products, and giving people. And that's how we operate. I think there's always been a culture of giving at Google, ever since even the founders.
In their founders' letter back in 2004, they said that 1% of profit and 1% of employee time would go for good. So that ethos of giving back, I think, has always been a core part of the company. And that was before the 1% was the norm or standard. It was pretty unusual at that time, but it really has been built into our DNA.
SAM CAPLAN: Every CSR program's long-term success hinges on employee buy-in. Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, can play a big part. As a natural space for authentic dialogue, ERGs can serve as a bridge between company leaders and employees. For Google, ERGs are an essential space to connect employees with the company's social impact efforts.
JEN CARTER: We try to partner really closely with employees, and especially with ERGs. A philosophy that we use with the nonprofits that we work with is that we build with, not for. And I think I would say the same thing about our CSR programs overall and the way that we try to engage with ERGs and other employee groups.
So we try to understand their priorities and think about how we might best work together to make a difference, like by creating events around Hispanic Heritage Month or things like that. But building with and not for, I think, is a really key principle for us that applies to our work internally in the way that we craft our CSR program as well as to our work with nonprofits. And I think it helps tremendously in terms of getting that employee buy-in and investment in the work.
SAM CAPLAN: Jen and her team apply this "with not for" philosophy to employees, but also to the community more broadly. As they do, they're always wary of shifting too much burden to community members.
JEN CARTER: We all take a cue from the disability rights movement, also a similar philosophy around nothing about us without us. And so we try to work to directly involve those who are impacted and involve them throughout in the process of thinking about what their needs are and try to understand those. And often, the nonprofits that we work with, their leaders and their teams also have been impacted by the issues that they're trying to solve.
And so I think really important to work with impacted communities. But maybe the conflicting sentiment there that we also try to balance is the idea that, of course, this work can't fall only on the shoulders of those impacted communities. And so that's where we try to come in as getting ideas, understanding what they think is the priority and the right approach, but then bringing our resources to help.
SAM CAPLAN: Within Google.org, there are multiple programs designed to bring employees closer to the company's social impact work. Volunteering in particular has been a key initiative for over a decade.
JEN CARTER: Google Serve is our-- well, it started out as an annual day of volunteering, I want to say 12 or 13 years ago. No, maybe-- probably 14 by now. But it started in 2008 as an annual day of volunteering where everyone at the company would find volunteering opportunities in their community where they could give back.
It's since evolved as the company has grown. I think it ended up being a week at one point, and now it's an entire month, the entire month of June where folks we try to get as much participation as possible in doing some kind of giving and volunteering opportunity in the community.
So everyone at the company actually has 20 hours of work time to volunteer per year. That's the 1% commitment. But in particular, we do try to galvanize a lot of folks around the specific month just so that people can volunteer with their team and really get a lot of excitement around it.
SAM CAPLAN: Giving people a variety of options allows everyone a way into social impact work. Alongside volunteering, Google empowers employees to give back through matching and directed donation programs.
JEN CARTER: So every employee gets $10,000 in Google matching that they can contribute to nonprofits. And so it's a one-to-one matching, and we'll match that up to $10,000. There's also our Donations for Doers program. So for every hour that Googlers volunteer, we'll donate $10 to the nonprofit that you volunteered with. So I think those are a couple of the programs on the giving side.
We also are really proud of our Holiday Giving Campaign, which has evolved over the years. But essentially, it's two components. One is during the holiday times, everyone at the company is given a voucher from Google that they can then direct to a nonprofit of their choice, so some funding that they get to direct. And you can see what it looks like when employees come together. And lots of them end up giving to some of the same organizations, and it really can make a huge, huge difference.
But then we also have a peer matching component of that that really gets people excited. So you can sponsor a nonprofit, and you can offer, basically, to match donations. So if I give money and someone else is matching that, and, of course, I get my Google match, you end up getting a three-to-one return on that. And so we see a lot of excitement around our Holiday Giving Campaign.
SAM CAPLAN: This is where things shift. Because a lot of companies have a volunteer program and donation matching, but Google goes way beyond that. Jen and her team launched a fellowship program which enables employees to take six months away from their regular work duties to help a nonprofit. Receiving this kind of support is transformational for community organizations.
JEN CARTER: I think the impetus for the program itself, for the Google.org Fellowship, was back in 2013 when healthcare.gov launched, the site crashed. It couldn't keep up with the QPS, Queries Per Second, or essentially, the amount of user traffic that it was seeing. And so some folks from Google as well as from other tech companies voluntarily took time off work to go and fix it.
It led to the creation of the US Digital Service at the federal government level. But for Google.org, I think it was a large part of us realizing the potential power of an impact that our volunteering efforts could have, and in particular, pro-bono and skills-based volunteering. The government had money. They'd hired contractors to build the site. It just wasn't the right folks, because it is so difficult to find and retain software engineers and product managers and UXers and everybody else that companies like Google rely on to build great products.
And so the only reason that this kind of worked itself out was because it was a public launch and a public failure. So that meant that tech folks saw the challenges and knew that their skill sets could help. But we knew that nonprofits and civic entities were facing these types of challenges every day. And so we really started to think more strategically about how Google and Googlers could add the most value and really decided to lean into this pro-bono volunteering.
And so that was the way that the Google.org Fellowship started. We were hearing not just this example, but more generally from nonprofits, that they wanted to do more with tech but had challenges with that recruitment. And at the same time, we were hearing from Googlers who were passionate about giving back, but it was difficult for them to find these types of opportunities as well. And so we created the Google.org Fellowship, which enables teams of Googlers, high-performing folks, to spend full time, six months working alongside nonprofits and civic entities, helping them build these innovative new products.
SAM CAPLAN: Allowing employees to volunteer at this scale encourages authentic and long-term engagement and enables employees to commit to the causes they care about. Often, there's a personal component to the fellowship work. Many people choose to focus on issues that have directly impacted them or their loved ones. And this combination of technical skill and real-world experience is invaluable.
JEN CARTER: There is an incredible culture of giving back at Google, and so I do think there's a ton of interest in this. We also see that interest over time, as when COVID first started and everyone raised their hands and wanted to figure out how they could help, or the war in Ukraine. We saw a ton of interest from Googlers who wanted to give back and contribute.
So there is a lot of interest in this program, which is just incredible to see, especially when you can match-- you have Googlers who are often personally impacted by the issues that we're now facing. And to be able to do that matching where they get to contribute is just really powerful. I can share a few examples of that.
So we had a Googler who faced homelessness who then was able to work on a project that made it easier for others to access affordable housing, or a Googler who was an out trans Googler who had struggled with suicidality as a youth and also just happened to be a natural language processing expert who then was able to help the Trevor Project, which helps LGBTQ youth in crisis-- was able to help them use AI to determine suicide risk level. And so you just get these-- you have these amazing Googlers who are extremely passionate about giving back. And when you can find that perfect match of their interests and their skill sets and their lived experience, it's just really incredible.
SAM CAPLAN: Though six months is a long time, having that kind of capacity to a nonprofit and then just walking away has the potential to be more disruptive than helpful. Jen and her team make it a point to think about how the fellowship can help an organization build capacity for the long term.
JEN CARTER: I think, unfortunately, it is all too common that folks come in and maybe even develop an incredible solution but then leave without a plan in place for how it's going to be maintained. And so that's something that we think about from the start. Before we even select a project, we've baked that into our selection criteria. Is there a path to sustainability, and what does that look like?
And then we consider it at every step of the way. So in terms of that initial path, that's actually why we're excited to pair, typically, our grant dollars with our Googlers, our volunteers-- because there is overhead in managing these, and there's also going to be a lot of work to maintain the efforts after. And so we often fund organizations, nonprofits to hire tech folks directly who are going to be permanent hires who can take the work forward after. Otherwise, we do engage in a lot of capacity-building during the fellowship.
So the fellows are on the ground even if the organization doesn't have the funding to hire a UX or a designer full time. We can at least teach them some of the best practices in user-centered design so that everyone-- the engineers, the product manager, whoever they do have-- is thinking about that after. So I think that's why the funding alone or the volunteers alone or the product donations alone-- I think each of those can be incredibly impactful. But when you combine them, I think the sum is even greater than the parts.
SAM CAPLAN: Leading a groundbreaking and somewhat experimental program means there isn't a set of best practices already in place. Jen and her team have had to experiment and figure out their own strategies. What they found is you can't overlook the importance of human connection and strong communication.
JEN CARTER: I think we try to think about our pro-bono work in stages. So you first are selecting a project, and then you're scoping it, and then you're recruiting for it, and then you're executing on it and then offboarding. And we already talked a little bit about that offboarding piece being critical here, that you really have to think about it every step of the way.
But maybe just to give a lesson from another stage, I think, in selecting, for example, we've developed a really clear set of criteria that we use to evaluate potential projects. There's no shortage of things that could occupy our attention. And so it was really critical for us to narrow in on where we think Google and Googlers can add the most value.
And that's going to contribute back to all of these other things that we mentioned that we care about. That's going to lead to more value to society. That's going to lead to more value to the Googlers if you're using their core expertise. And so figuring out what that set of criteria is for your company, no matter how big or small, whatever industry, I think, is really key.
Another one-- I'll skip stages, but maybe in executing, I think when you're actually doing the project, there's extensive research around what makes an effective team. And it consistently shows that it's not actually about hiring the best people. It's about creating the strongest team.
And so one of the things that we do that I think sometimes gets lost in volunteering is that we really invest in the team and in building the team. It's a bunch of Googlers from different areas of the company trying to work really closely with a bunch of folks from a nonprofit that they've never met before. And they may not be aware and that familiar with the issue area.
And so whenever we kick off a project, we spend a lot of time just helping the teams get to know one another better so that they can really bond as a team and work together toward that common goal. I think sometimes, there's a tendency to just match the volunteer and then sort of disappear, and that's kind of it. But I think we place a high premium on fostering that team cohesion.
SAM CAPLAN: Thinking about long-term impact and sustainability is important, but you don't want to get lost in the theory of it all. You want to connect these principles to concrete actions. What does this long-term strategy look like when it's applied to real-world problems?
JEN CARTER: I can share a recent project that we did with the Morehouse School of Medicine. And we were trying to help track the disparate racial and ethnic impacts of COVID-19. And we helped them-- again, we helped them hire their first engineers who could work alongside our fellows. And now are maintaining the work. But the reason I wanted to highlight it was because it demonstrated a couple of things that we're most excited about in terms of that long-term maintenance and sustainability.
And the first is that we helped them with that initial hiring. And so now they have an incredible team who's been able to not just maintain the work but continue to expand on it. And then the other thing that was really exciting about it is we always try to build not just for the current crisis, but really, to help in future crises as well. And so we designed it in a way, the underlying infrastructure, that it was flexible and extensible enough to work for other diseases and things like that.
And so since the fellows left, they got it-- they launched the dashboard initially and got it off the ground and up and running, but since they've left, the team at Morehouse has added other chronic diseases like asthma and cardiovascular disease. Again, the goal is to look at the social and political determinants of health, and so they've added other measures there, like voter participation or incarceration on the political determinant side or poverty and uninsured individuals on the social determinant side. And so they've actually just been able to expand on the work since our fellows left, which I think is a testament to, hopefully, the thought that we put into that maintenance and sustainability piece.
SAM CAPLAN: Having a Google employee work for you full time is inevitably going to be transformative for your nonprofit. But Jen And her team have found that the experience is equally powerful for the employees themselves.
JEN CARTER: We hear how meaningful the experience is to Googlers. But I think it-- and I talked about often when it overlaps with their personal experience, and they get to give back in ways that are really personally meaningful. But I think there's also this professional meaning that comes out of realizing how valuable your skill set is, that maybe in the day to day of your normal job, you might occasionally forget how powerful it is and how it can be used for good and to help nonprofits.
And fortunately, they can do that through the fellowship as part of their full-time role, functionally. But I think it also reminds people. We see an interesting arc of volunteers where folks who participate in the fellowship don't-- once the fellowship is over, they don't go back and never do pro-bono work again. It actually helps them see that they can provide this value, and it helps them seek out those opportunities in the future. And so we see folks that continue to volunteer and give back, do pro-bono work.
And we see the opposite as well folks-- who have been 20 percent-ing for a while and just looking for that opportunity to do it full-time in the fellowship. And so there's some interesting arcs there with volunteers. 94% said that the experience improved their potential career growth at Google, which was really exciting for us. One other thing that was exciting, again, for other companies who might be considering something similar was that we hear from Googlers who participate in the program, but perhaps even more importantly, even from those who haven't yet gotten a chance to participate personally, that it makes them proud to work at Google, that they feel proud to work at a company that is giving back in this way and that prioritizes that. So I think that was also a really exciting finding for us in some employee surveys.
SAM CAPLAN: No doubt the big question from many CSR practitioners is, how do you get leadership onboard with a project of this scope? How do you convince them that letting employees take six months away from their roles is a good investment?
JEN CARTER: In terms of convincing leadership, I was fortunate to have some very supportive folks. I think another thing that was helpful was demonstrating the value that it could provide to Googlers and, of course, as a result to Google. So the program is a great career and leadership development opportunity for high-performing Googlers. It enables them to work cross-functionally and strengthen their internal and external networks.
It also helps them build better and more inclusive products when they come back to Google. So I think it was also trying to understand and figure out some of these benefits to Googlers as well to help demonstrate the value. And we've had a lot of incredible stories there as well about Googlers who maybe tried out a new function on the fellowship and then were able to convert to that role full-time internally-- someone who is a data center technician who then became a program manager, someone who is a program manager who became a product manager. And so we've seen a lot of these career shifts from it that help demonstrate the impact.
SAM CAPLAN: As impactful as it can be to lend an employee's technical expertise to a cause, it's important for CSR leaders to remember that often, the best solutions to social problems come from the communities most impacted. Formalizing a channel for community input is not only important, it's essential. To facilitate this input, Google runs a global challenge to solicit ideas and feedback directly from community members.
JEN CARTER: Our Google.org Impact Challenge is really an open call that we do to the community, and typically around a certain issue to help identify the best ideas. We believe that the best answers often come from those who are closest to the problems. And so with the Google.org Impact Challenge, we asked communities what they need. And we look for big ideas that I think can help address inequity at scale.
So the Google Impact Challenge is definitely a big effort that we do that really does help us see a lot of the ideas out there and also helps us find commonalities between them. We've occasionally gotten lots of applications that relate to a single idea, and we help connect those orgs, because they're all working on something similar, and maybe even given a grant across them.
So I can give an example from our AI Impact Challenge that we ran a few years ago. We had a few different ideas that were around fact checking. And so we ended up working with an organization, Full Fact, in the UK, but also an organization in Africa called Africa Check and another org in South America called Chequeado. And we combined all of those efforts and tried to build technology that would support all of their efforts rather than having these disparate things happening. So yeah, I think the Impact Challenge is a really great method where we can get ideas from the community.
SAM CAPLAN: When it comes to big, long-term solutions for complex problems, community perspectives are invaluable. But Jen and her team recognized that at the individual level, putting decision-making power directly in the hands of people most affected by a problem can have profound effects.
JEN CARTER: I think it was probably about 10 years ago now that GiveDirectly pitched the Google.org team about direct cash transfers, giving money directly to those in need with no strings attached. And it's kind of hard to believe now, as during COVID and many other crises, we've certainly seen the rise of cash transfers in recent years.
But 10 years ago, it truly was not done. It was not common at all. And GiveDirectly was really the first major player in this space, but now there are a ton of others. So they came to us, and we decided to invest. But we also always do data-driven philanthropy, and so we funded an RCT, a Randomized Controlled Trial, to compare it to other forms of aid, like in-kind support. And at a high level, it did show that giving directly was both more efficient and effective.
And since launching in Kenya back then, GiveDirectly has continued to evaluate its approach with randomized controlled trials. But it lets people rebuild their lives on their own terms. And it works. I think there was a study recently that showed 84% of natural disaster victims said they preferred cash because of its flexibility and the sense of agency that it provides.
There was also-- I think this was the study that Google.org funded with USAID, but families reported that they've been able to improve their child's nutritional intake and upgrade the quality of their homes and pay down their debt and all of these other impressive outcomes. And again, they were even beyond the impact that in-kind aid had. And I think one of the findings from some of these studies that was particularly impressive was that the impact of cash had a ripple effect beyond the family that was actually receiving the cash.
So some of the initial studies showed that direct cash assistance can actually help empower communities and local economies and not just individuals. So that was incredibly exciting as well. And so GiveDirectly pioneered this work 10-plus years ago. And we were excited to partner with them early on and continue to. But now we've worked with a number of other organizations as well that are doing direct cash transfers.
SAM CAPLAN: As Jen's work proves, the next era of social impact is all about transformation-- transformative experiences for employees and long-term sustainable support to help communities solve complex social problems, problems that might feel unsolvable now. But remember, at one point, the moon landing seemed impossible too. When we think about a moonshot, we shouldn't think about one standalone attempt to achieve the unachievable. Instead, we should think about it as a long-term strategic effort that requires experimentation, failure, and adaptability.
People forget that before the famous Apollo 11 trip, more than 20 other missions had to happen. NASA had to test whether humans could even survive in space, let alone land on the moon. The trajectory for success is rarely a straight line. It's often shaped like a spiral. You have to be willing to stay in orbit, to circle around the thing you're trying to achieve, gradually getting closer and closer until you can touch it.
JEN CARTER: One of our goals it's to make this the new norm. 1%, again, didn't used to be very common. And now a lot of companies have adopted the 1% pledge. And that's incredibly exciting, and there's still a lot more work to be done there. But I really do think this is the next phase in CSR. 1% of employee time is 20 hours per year. That's less than 25 minutes per week, less than five minutes per day. So that might work well for a hearts and hands volunteer opportunity, but it really doesn't work as well for these more skills-based and pro-bono opportunities. And so I really do think that's the next iteration.
And as we've been talking about this work, there's definitely been a lot of interest from some of our peer companies. And so I've enjoyed chatting with other folks in CSR about some of the lessons that we've learned and how they might be able to do it. But I don't think you have to be large. You can start extremely small.
Even at Google, we started with one single fellowship that only had five Googlers on our first fellowship. But even before that, we iterated with other models that were shorter duration. So when I first started with this, we didn't think we could do six months. That would be too much of an ask for managers. And so our first full-time engagement was only four weeks.
And then we did a six-weeks one. And then we sort of saw, OK, maybe we can go a little longer and a little larger with the number of people. But even at Google, we really did have to iterate in that way. But it still worked when we started small. Even just one fellowship is invaluable. And hopefully, we try to share all of the lessons that we've learned so that folks don't have to repeat some of those same mistakes.
SAM CAPLAN: Thanks for listening. For more conversations like this, be sure to subscribe to our Impact Audio podcast at submittable.com. Until next time.
Hi, this is Keriann from Submittable.
I just want to say a quick thank you for listening to these Impact Studio sessions. Our team put a lot of work into each of them and I hope you found them and the Impact Studio Collective LinkedIn group useful.
I would also like to send a sincere thank you to our guests. It’s an honor to collaborate with and learn from industry-shifting thought leaders of your caliber.
Finally, if you'd like to learn more about Submittable and access a trove of Social Impact content, I encourage you to watch our demo, subscribe to Sam’s newsletter, and get in touch with us at submittable.com to learn more.
We’d love to introduce you to our latest CSR product: Give by Submittable. Or our employee volunteering and community investment solutions. Let’s work together.
There will be a lot more great content like this in the coming next year, so stay tuned. And Warm wishes from beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana.
Sincerely, the Submittable team.
Learn more about how you can boost your CSR strategy and embrace innovations pioneered by programs like Jen’s: