& Superior Knowledge

About a month ago, Larry Brilliant announced the next chapter in the evolution of My sister, Jessica Stannard-Friel, covered the announcement on her blog Reimagining CSR. The New York Times also covered the story (although Jessica thought they misinterpreted the context of the changes).

Today I want to look at the decisions that Google made and how they fit into the framework I’ve been laying out where “superior knowledge” is the “real currency”
of philanthropy.

In a nutshell, Google said that after a review of the past three years, they had determined that they had been most effective when they had gone after problems in ways that made the most of Google’s strengths in technology and information. In other words, they had had the most impact when they leveraged their superior knowledge.

Writing on her blog The Philanthropic Family, Sharon Schneider discussed the announcement:

In essence, Dr. Brilliant is saying that is going to focus on projects where it’s unique strengths put in a position to bring value and add insight to solving social problems.  And if you think about it, the lesson there is both obvious and yet profound. 

Lots of philanthropists have money to spend on solving social problems–that certainly isn’t a unique strength.  And lots of philanthropists big, tiny and everywhere in between have spent that money, many of them always feeling like they weren’t being as effective as they would like to be, but unsure of what to do differently. has come up with an answer: it’s not our money that makes us effective, it’s our know-how.  They plan to focus on problems where information aggregation and innovative technology can bring key insights and move us toward new solutions.

And for those of us without a billion dollars to spend on our philanthropy, the same lesson holds true: It’s not the amount of our money that makes us effective philanthropists, it’s the strength of our other resources that help us decide where to donate that money.

In some ways all of this is obvious. Very few people in philanthropy think that just throwing money at a problem will fix it. Focusing on your unique strength is pretty run of the mill advice. My point isn’t just to point out the obvious fact that knowing a lot about your focus area helps.

My point is that sharing this superior knowledge is a high leverage, underutilized strategy that should be a core value in philanthropy.

Here’s what’s interesting, Google’s corporate mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Clearly Google has put valuable information at the finger tips of billions of people. But note that they don’t just offer a mass library of information. Their genius has been in organizing the information, making it accessible and useful.

Philanthropy as a field is only beginning to view sharing information as an important and valuable activity. While some readers have suggested that it is more common than I suggest, it is rare enough that the New York Times found it newsworthy when the Hewlett and Irvine Foundations released reports on some of their ineffective programs in 2007. But all of this is only the first step.

When I wrote yesterday about Carnegie’s analysis of a failed grant, New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom (the author of the Times article on Hewlett and Irvine) messaged me via Twitter:

The question is, how many donors will ever know about the lessons of Susan’s [Carnegie’s] report?

Good point. When philanthropists “share” information, that doesn’t mean it will be acted on. Just as important is that the information be organized, accessible and useful. Again via twitter, Mitch Nauffts of the PND Blog asked how this sort of aggregation could ever be paid for?

Guess what, Carnegie gives $120 million a year. That seems like a pretty good (huge!) budget for an effort to organize the world of philanthropy’s information. And while I’m sure Carnegie has other priorities, it is interesting to note that a single foundation could single handedly revolutionize the way knowledge is organized in philanthropy.

So who’s going to be the Google of philanthropy?


  1. Jeff Smith says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. In our project, Generation BIG, Bold, Innovative and Generous, we document the efforts of Nicholas Negroponte, One Laptop per Child, and Smiletrain, the group that does free cleft and palate surgery for the poorest kids of the world. I also interviewed Dr. Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus, which annually identifies the world’s biggest problems, then prioritizes them by biggest bang for the buck applied to the problem. This is fascinating.

    I have forwarded your post to Dr. Lomborg and also to Brian Mullaney @ Smiletrain. Stay in touch.

    Again thanks.

    Jeff Smith, Founder
    Book to be released in April

  2. Thanks Jeff. You project looks fascinating.