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5x5x5: Jacquelline Fuller, Google's Director of Giving, On The Global Impact Awards And Shaping Innovation

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Jacquelline Fuller
Jacquelline Fuller

In partnership with the Social Innovation Summit, we're running a series called 5x5x5 -- 5 Leaders, 5 Sectors, 5 Questions. Five guests from a variety of sectors will answer questions on how technology and innovation can be used for social good.

Our latest installment features Google's Director of Giving Jacquelline Fuller in conversation with Brian Sirgutz, Senior Vice President -- Social Impact, at the Huffington Post. We asked Fuller about what went into the company's Global Impact Awards, which gave $23 million in grants to spur innovation among charities.

Brian: As you know, our ImpactX section is all about the intersection of philanthropy and technology. The Google Impact awards have redefined the way grants can be applied to encourage NGOs to embrace innovation.

Can you talk a little about trends you're seeing in this area and the process used to identify these specific non-profits? How did Google decide which innovations to support?

Jacquelline: Philanthropy should be willing to take informed risk to help the sector innovate and encourage step-change rather than incremental advances. Innovation is underfunded even though it’s critical for testing new solutions to huge problems. We've heard from past grantees that our willingness to back unproven, but high-potential technology is extremely helpful. Our new Global Impact Awards are designed to support tech innovators with audacious ideas for change.

We have a three-part criteria for evaluating the recipients, and a team of engineers and Googlers who source and vet each potential idea. We looked at hundreds of organizations, many sourced through Googlers, before narrowing down to our seven awardees.

The first and most important component we look for is a breakthrough technology or innovative approach that can deliver transformational impact. Second, we look at the team. Are they Googley in the sense that they're not afraid to fail fast or challenge the status quo, and have what we like to call "a healthy disregard for the impossible?"

Since we want this to be about funding blue-sky ideas and taking informed risk, the approach needs to be bold but pragmatic. It needs to provide opportunities to learn from mistakes and demonstrate concrete results -- that's why our last filter is a real-world, specific project that can test the big idea and produce rigorous output data. Finally, we want to share the learnings, both success and failure, with the broader field. So grantees must have a transparent approach to their data and results.

Brian: I am sure Google gets approached all the time for financial and other support for organizations in the non-profit space. You gave $5 million to create new opportunities for underrepresented students in the U.S. With no shortage of non-profits for the advancement of education, what made Donorschoose.org stand out as the face of the project?

Jacquelline: Donorschoose.org stood out for its commitment to a data-driven approach. They host hackathons, encourage innovation with their API, and use data to shape and improve their programs. Their big idea is what really impressed us -- using rigorous data to expand math and science access for girls and underrepresented students across the U.S. They're partnering with College Board to find schools that should have AP math and science courses based on student PSAT results and will work with each school to provide the training and materials needed to get the class up in running. They're also closing the data loop, giving teachers whose students score a 3 or higher on the AP exam credit to reinvest in their classroom.

We also gave Equal Opportunity Schools a Global Impact Award to use data to identify low-income students who have the aptitude for advanced classes but were not enrolled in them. They’ll be working with schools to move these kids into advanced coursework, which is, in many cases, right across the hallway.

Brian: Two other grants went toward the protection of wildlife. These innovations can be game-changing and very disruptive, particularly to poachers around the world. Can you talk a little bit about those initiatives and how these grants could, in essence, preserve species being hunted into extinction?

Jacquelline: We're seeing that wildlife traffickers are becoming increasingly sophisticated as demand continues to skyrocket. Poachers have an asymmetrical advantage in these remote and rugged terrains. Wildlife is vulnerable to attacks because park rangers can’t be everywhere at once, and the criminal industry is devastating endangered species, damaging ecosystems, and threatening local livelihoods. WWF's Global Impact Award tests technologies that can help even the odds.

They'll be deploying aerial vehicles, tagging technology and high-tech sensors to protect endangered wildlife such as rhinos and elephants in Africa. But being able to prosecute poachers is critical too. The Consortium for the Barcode of Life received a Global Impact Award to develop and implement DNA barcoding tests that can easily identify trafficked wildlife materials, such as a medicinal powder made from rhino horn. With this cheap and simple tool, border agents in developing nations will be able identify and shut down traffickers more easily.

Brian: Can you talk about how Google will continue to monitor the progress of these projects to see if they are scalable? Can you also talk about the potential risks you have identified to Google and the recipient NGO?

Jacquelline: Google is a data-driven company, so we're laser-focused on measuring outcomes. We can learn a lot from metrics on what works and what doesn’t. But we also don’t want awardees drowning in the process -- we want to streamline reporting to only data that really matters. To balance it, we're working closely with them to test and evaluate the projects, provide skill-based volunteering from Googlers, and measure results. There is always a risk of failure when you fund innovation, but also a chance for catalytic change.

Brian: Finally, what advice do you have for non-profits on embracing technology and innovation to increase impact? What do the next five years for giving at Google look like? How do you plan to support NGOs wanting to embrace innovative solutions?

Jacquelline: Many non-profits have ideas and plans for truly transformational projects, but it's difficult to get funding for technologies for tomorrow rather than for providing services today. Non-profits have also told us that they'd like to be more transparent with their results, sharing outcome metrics on what approaches work better than others, but they fear losing funding if they acknowledge less than stellar results.

We need both funders and the organizations on the front lines to embrace a culture of transparency around real-time reporting of results. Charity: water is using its Global Impact Award to publish real-time results on its water access sites openly to partners, the sector and its donors. This type of transparency will help identify challenges and successes, pushing the entire clean water sector forward.

As a younger company, we're a relatively new player in the giving space and we are still learning how our funding can be most helpful. We have a lot to learn from those who have been sowing the seeds of innovation and transparency for decades, both on the funding and the action sides.

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