Google Giving: Calibrating Moon Shots
When we back only proven and incremental ideas, we miss out on the opportunity to test new ones that could potentially change millions of lives.
Half a million low-income and minority students in the United States are missing from advanced high school classes each year. These students—roughly equivalent to the population of Wyoming—miss out on rigorous classes that provide the best preparation for success in college. Nine out of 10 students attend high schools that offer at least one AP class, but low-income and minority students are much less likely to participate. Poor students are three times less likely as high- and middle-income peers to attend advanced classes, and black students participate at half the rate of their peers. There are hundreds of thousands of high-achieving low-income and minority students who are ready for advanced classes but not in them. What if we could use data analytics to identify these high potential students and move them into advanced classes?
Throughout the course of a year, thousands of ideas cross the paths of potential donors. Whether you’re a private philanthropist or a corporate funder, choosing how to allocate scarce resources is difficult. Go in too early on an idea, and you might hit stumbling blocks that slow or halt its impact. But when we back only proven and incremental ideas, we miss out on the opportunity to test new ones that could potentially change millions of lives. Google strives for “moon shots” in our business, so why not in our philanthropy?
When Reid Saaris approached us with the Equal Opportunity Schools concept of using data indicators to identify high-achieving, “missing” poor and minority students and then moving them into higher-level classes, only a couple dozen high schools and a few early funders had signed up. But we were intrigued by the idea, and it complemented our work with DonorsChoose.org and College Board to expand the number of science and math AP classes offered in US high schools.
Sit down with Reid, and you immediately pick up on his deep drive to help poor and minority students succeed. In high school, Reid was tracked into an advanced class, along with many of his white, middle-class friends. His best friend, who came from a poor family, was not. Reid went on to Harvard and Stanford, while his best friend continues to struggle to overcome the gap that began in high school. That stark inequity motivated Reid to find a solution. Reid had the passion to succeed and the framework of a scalable idea backed by data, but he faced hurdles as well. Most immediately: What if he couldn’t convince high schools to participate in the new program?
Was Equal Opportunity Schools “a safe bet”? No, but we weren’t taking a shot in the dark either. We reviewed Reid and his organization against three criteria that we use in assessing our philanthropic investments:
- Focus on the team. Venture capitalists spend a lot of time evaluating the personality, passion, and expertise of the people behind a great idea. We do the same. Strong leadership signals a team’s ability to secure follow-on funding and to weather bumps in the road. We bet on Equal Opportunity Schools in part because Reid’s leadership and grit meant that he would persist despite initial challenges.
- Invest in what you know. As a technology company, Google’s core strength is building tech-based and data-driven solutions that scale. We know that to push innovation, you have to take informed risks, so we coach partners to launch, iterate, and fail fast. Our technology filter lets partners take advantage of highly skilled Googlers in addition to our funding. The Equal Opportunity Schools model relies on a rigorous, data-driven screening to identify students and move them into advanced classrooms—a targeted approach that Google can understand and help refine.
- Tackle a big problem. We want nonprofits to get the biggest bang for our buck, so we look for ways to make our funding catalytic and differential. We ask: If successful, can this approach scale reach millions of people? Can we leverage our funding by bringing in skilled Googlers and tech partners? Equal Opportunity Schools is working to ultimately reach nearly half a million talented students across the country each year—if the model works, then it may be one of the most cost-effective ways to close race and income access gaps within schools.
Google Giving invests approximately $50 million in technology for social impact annually. We look for innovators with bold ideas, who have the potential to drive transformational impact at scale. We take a portfolio approach, providing early-stage seed funding to newer ideas and capital for proven ideas that can scale. These criteria allow flexibility in our approach.
Placing risky bets sometimes means failure, but with due diligence around our three criteria, we see the potential for supporting heroes on the front lines who are using technology to curb some of society’s most complex problems.
How are you balancing risk and opportunity in your giving?