Google matching gifts for refugees make me edgy

I'm wary but $25 seemed a fair price to see how this unfolds.

When an appeal from Google to help refugees appeared in my browser toolbar yesterday (above), I was intrigued by what might be down the yellow brick road. So I clicked "Donate" The screen below opened.

The offer is clear - a one-to-one match. And Google led with their own strong initial gift.


Four agencies (below) will receive the proceedsof the appeal. (Pretty nice endorsement for those organizations, by the way.)


The channel is Network For Good, and Google is paying the processing fees. The Google appeal adds the "bonus" that many charities hate, because it is usually highly misleading: "100% of your donation goes to where is needed most".  In this case, the assurance covers only the costs of processing th donation. All charities have overhead.


As an aside, Network for Good is interesting in its own right.

Based in the U.S. it describes itself  as a “hybrid organization—a nonprofit-owned for-profit.” Fundamentally it’s an Internet technology company providing services to not-for-profits and corporations.  “Network for Good’s nonprofit donor-advised fund uses the Internet and mobile technology to securely and efficiently distribute thousands of donations from donors to their favorite charities each year. Our … software company offers online fundraising software and coaching for nonprofits . . .”

Below, the match is restated and now the bar is raised with a large goal. The two make a great offer, and a powerful incentive. The goal is easily within reach for Google's millions of users, and it's not that much for Google (see below) but still, it's not pocket change to the recipient charities.   


Ah - here's a bit of a bump: the funds must be paid via my Google account. I should have expected that, of course: this is Google. They're all about using Google for everything. And getting more people to use Google for everything. Still, the rationale re: knowing what to match seems credible.


I made my donation. No receipt will be issued that's useful in Canada. Note the statement about who has "exclusive legal control." That's important - an assurance from Google that they are playing no role in directing how the funds are used, and have no control over any organization's charitable activities.


As is normal with online donations, I received an instant email that, along with the payment details, said: "You've made a purchase from Network for Good -- Emergency relief for refugees and migrants" and repeated the legal reference: "Your donation is made through Network for Good who has exclusive legal control over your contributed assets."  Note the use of the word "purchase." 


So far, no hint of anything nefarious, my wariness notwithstanding. The "Do No Evil" company is teaming up with the "Network for Good" to get me to do something worthy.

That seems legitimate. Google is a philanthropic company. They report that "EACH YEAR, WE DONATE $100,000,000 IN GRANTS, 80,000 HOURS, $1 BILLION IN PRODUCTS. (The capitlaization of the words is theirs.)

That's a lot of zeros. Five million euros is about $5.6 million U.S. - so Google is committing about 5.6% of the $100 million total in charitable grants to this appeal. Matched by money from you and me, the four charities will divide over $11 million U.S. in absolute dollars. But the gift is not a financial stretch for Google, by its own philanthropic yardstick.

I assume the philanthropic impulse is genuine (and there's no reason not to). Some people will make gifts who otherwise might never consider doing so. Those respondents may be younegr than the general population. All that is true. But I'm still wary because the appeal is also shaped by larger agendas, and because of Google's dominance.

I'm not truly comfortable with Google's relentless drive to be the only interface I ever use with the online world. I am edgy about Google gradually assuming the role of  guide and manager of my off-line life. Contextual and history-driven recommendations of restaurants and so on are cool, but when I send a G-mail that mentions getting a new roof, and ads for local roofers begin to appear in my browser, I am a bit freaked out.

Yes, I'm wary and edgy, and yet I'm utterly complicit, because Google is very effective and their services are useful. So I trade my personal data for convenience and speed, and supress any lingering angst over the exchange.

The angst could not be ignored when I saw this Google appeal however. Google has the power to bend the category of cause marketing in ways we can't yet envision, for one simple reason: I voluntarily give Google my eyeballs every single day of my life. We volunteer to be Google's customers, often multiple times daily. Compare that advantage to wonderful initatives like Bell Canada's "Let's Talk" promotion for awareness of mental health needs. Bell is a big company but they must fight, and hard, to get my attention, even for one day.

The Google refugee appeal is about funds for refugees, but it is also about branding, market share, new customers and customer loyalty. So is Bell's. I can deal with that.

I'm not talking about the likelihood that for some people a $10 or $25 gift via Google will feel like the fulfillment of any responsibility they have for refugees and migrants. A $10 or $25 gift can be generous or it can be merely the discharge of a spark of concern built-up by news coverage and disappearing like so much static electricity. All forms of fundraising are liable to evoke superficial and nominal results among many people. 

Instead, I'm thinking of sheer reach of Google, almost literally in command of the dominant medium of this era, with more people in a company's line of sight than anyone has ever had at any time in history. Regardless of their intentions, how can Google possibly avoid shaping the philanthropic agenda for the public, defining who deserves support. I am sobered by what may be the unavoidable well-intentioned and inevitable favouring of a few big charities, and the consigning of others to the shadows. I expect the charitable sector to be shaped by by the emergence of an artificial, uninformed and trend-driven concensus about what issues are important. I wonder who will define constitutes good charitable work, and which views are acceptable.

What I cannot foresee from Google is activity that binds donors and charities to each other for the long haul or that celebrates the multiplicty of responses, players and efforts to do good in the world. After all, what I did was "purchase" another service from Google.

So, after all that, why did I give? Mainly to see what comes next. I'm sure that by making this "purchase," I haven't heard the last of Google's ideas for me and my charitable giving.

-- Larry Matthews