The Power of People: Why Philanthropy Requires More Than Money


Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, calls at The Trevor Project have doubled in volume. As more LGBTQ+ youth have found themselves isolated from their communities and networks of support, many have been reaching out to the suicide- and crisis-prevention organization to connect with trained counselors for help.


Thanks to a collaboration with Google.org, the nonprofit was ready to handle the spike in calls.


In 2019, The Trevor Project received a $1.5 million grant from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the tech giant, to build a queueing system that uses artificial intelligence to prioritize callers who are most at risk. The system analyzes language that comes through calls, chats and texts to the helpline, then it moves callers who use red-flag words to the top of the queue.


The project is one of many for Google.org, which gives back by providing money and technical expertise to nonprofits and social-sector organizations across the globe.


“I think what is really distinctive about us is that we’re bringing the core mission and core values that Google has as a company to our philanthropic pursuits, so we have a strong focus on technology, on innovation,” said Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, director of product impact at Google.org. “We are thinking about how technology can be a force for positive change in our society.”

“We are thinking about how technology can be a force for positive change in our society.” –Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink

Hoyer Gosselink spoke to Katherine Klein, vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, during a recent episode of the Dollars and Change podcast. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page; find more episodes here.)


Founded in 2005 as part of the company’s IPO letter, Google.org gives out more than $200 million in grants each year to nonprofits and social enterprises around the world to help advance causes including economic empowerment, racial justice, disaster relief and sustainability. This year, it committed $100 million to COVID-19 response efforts.


But the company offers more than just money. Google.org also deploys employee volunteers through the Google.org Fellowship program which matches “Googlers” with Google.org grantees and civic entities to help them achieve technological goals. Teams of five to 10 Googlers are dispatched for up to six months as part of its Fellowship program.


“They’re often the full suite of a product team that we would have at Google,” Hoyer Gosselink said. “Product managers, software engineers, user-experience designers. Everything that you think we would need to deliver something as a company, we’re trying to bring that same type of a team to the organizations that we’re working with.”


Nonprofits are always scrapping for dollars, but they need talent, too. Gosselink suggested that smaller firms that don’t have the cash for charitable giving can borrow Google’s model and loan their employees to nonprofits while on the clock.


Google.org Fellowships are popular with Google employees and quite competitive, Hoyer Gosselink said. Sometimes the company is able to send a larger team to the nonprofit. That was the case with The Trevor Project, and now Google is working with them on a second initiative to help recruit and train more counselors.

“I think there’s something really powerful about shifting the paradigm and suggesting that people actually do know what they need.” –Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink

The Power of Cash


As part of its pandemic response, Google.org is also working with Give Directly, a nonprofit that gives cash directly to families in extreme poverty. The organization began in East Africa and has expanded to the U.S., where there is a pervasive attitude against cash aid.


Hoyer Gosselink addressed that concern, saying the idea that recipients spend their cash aid on liquor, cigarettes and other nonessentials is a common fallacy. Studies have shown that recipients generally do not misuse cash aid, but instead use the money where they need it most. That self-determination and flexibility is even more important during the COVID-19 crisis, she said.


“One thing that is really powerful about cash is it asks us to reframe the way that we think about the right answer for supporting people who are in need. Frankly, we don’t ask those questions of a lot of other people in our society. We don’t make assumptions that they might spend money in the wrong way,” Hoyer Gosselink said. “There’s something really powerful about shifting the paradigm and suggesting that people actually do know what they need.”


Klein asked her guest what advice she had for students and professionals who dream of getting a job like hers, one where they can have a positive social impact. Hoyer Gosselink said a broad range of experience helps. For example, she is a trained engineer who went to business school and worked for a nongovernmental organization, the federal government and a nonprofit foundation. She draws on that experience to understand the hard decisions that must be made in different kinds of sectors.


“I think that diversity of experience has been helpful to me,” she said. “And I think a lot of these corporate social responsibility or corporate philanthropy jobs benefit from having some of that diverse perspective and experience.”