WASHINGTON -- Scott Harrison knows his charity has funded nearly 7,000 clean water projects in some of the poorest areas of the world in the past six years. How many of those wells are still flowing with drinking water months or years later, though? That's a tough question to answer.
His organization called Charity: Water has funded projects in 20 different countries. It's committed to spend 100 percent of each donation in the field to help reach some of the 800 million people who don't have clean water and resort to drinking from swamps, unhealthy ponds or polluted rivers. Organizers send donors photos and GPS coordinates for each water project they pay for.
Still, Harrison, a former New York promoter for nightclubs and fashion events, didn't want to guess at how many water projects were actually working. He wanted to give donors more assurance, knowing as many as a third of hand pumps built by various governments or groups stop functioning later. His solution: why not create sensors to monitor the water flow at each well? But raising millions for a new innovation could prove impossible.
Few funders want to pay for a nonprofit's technical infrastructure or take the risk of funding a dreamy idea. They'd rather pay for real work on the ground.
This month, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) stepped in with major funding to create and install sensors on 4,000 wells across Africa by 2015 that will send back real-time data on the water flow at each site. The $5 million grant could be a game changer for Charity: Water to ensure its projects are sustainable, to raise money for maintenance and to empower developing countries to maintain their infrastructure with new data.
“You could imagine a water minister salivating over this technology, even a president of a country being able to hold his water ministers in different districts accountable, saying, `Hey, look, I want a dashboard in my office where I can see how my small, rural water projects are performing,”' Harrison said.
The grant is part of the first class of Google's Global Impact Awards totaling $23 million to spur innovation among nonprofits. Experts say the new annual grants are a part of a growing trend in venture philanthropy from funders who see technology as an instrument for social change. Such donors say they can have a bigger impact funding nonprofits that find ways to multiply their efforts through technology.
The gifts also represent a shift in the tech company's approach to philanthropy.
Google's Director of Charitable Giving Jacquelline Fuller said the company analyzed its giving, including $115 million in grants last year. It decided it could have a greater impact by funding nonprofit tech innovation, rather than specific issue areas or existing projects. Its grants will come with volunteer consulting on each project from Google engineers or specialists.
“We're really looking for the transformational impact” from clever uses of technology, Fuller said. But that sometimes involves risk that new technologies and innovations may not work.
“Informed risk is something Google understands,” she said. “There's actually very few dollars available that's truly risk capital, lenders willing to take informed risk to help back some of these new technologies and innovations that may not pan out.”
The largest source of funding for U.S. nonprofits is government, mostly through contracts that come with strings attached. Individual donors contribute significant support to charities as well, and the nation's foundations give about 14 percent of overall philanthropy to nonprofits.
“There is sort of a new breed of philanthropists coming into the field,” including many who made money in the tech sector at a young age, said Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center, an information clearinghouse on nonprofits. “There I think you're seeing a really interesting sort of confluence of almost kind of a venture, risk-taking approach and technology as an instrument for social change.”
Google zeroed in on projects that could develop new technology to scale up smaller projects targeting the environment, poverty, education and gender issues.
It's giving $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund to develop high-tech sensors for wildlife tagging to detect and deter poaching of endangered species. Another $3 million is going to a project at the Smithsonian Institution to develop DNA barcoding as a tool to stop illegal trading of endangered plants or animals smuggled across borders. That project could give six developing countries DNA testing materials with fast results to use as evidence to prosecute smugglers.
To fuel future innovation, Google is giving Donorschoose.org $5 million to create 500 new Advanced Placement courses in math, science and technology for U.S. schools that are committed to enrolling girls and minority students.
The charity GiveDirectly will receive $2.4 million to expand its model of direct mobile cash transfers to poor families in Kenya as a new method for lifting people out of poverty.
A charity run by actress Geena Davis that studies gender portrayals in the media will use a $1.2 million Google grant to develop new automated software that analyzes how females are portrayed in children's media worldwide, speeding up a previously manual process.
“It was looking prohibitively expensive to do a global study,” Davis said, adding that developing new technology seemed like a far-flung wish. “It seems so science future that we weren't really raising money to do it.”
While the grant may be a relatively small investment for a major tech company, it represents one of the largest gifts ever for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Innovation and technology among nonprofits have long been underfunded with traditional funders often feeling averse to risk and more often seeking to fund specific types of existing programs.
Momentum has been building for the past decade for funders pursuing venture philanthropy, said Matt Bannick, managing partner of the Omidyar Network founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Since 2004, the group has given out $310 million in grants to nonprofits, including the Sunlight Foundation and DonorsChoose.
Seeking out ideas to fund, rather than existing projects, turns traditional notions of philanthropy on its head, Bannick said.
“Rather than looking for organizations that could do this specific work that we're hoping to get accomplished, let's look for fabulous entrepreneurs ... that have a new and innovative idea that we can get behind,” he said.
Silicon Valley philanthropists are fueling some growth in funding for nonprofit innovators, but some older foundations also have turned to funding innovation and nonprofit entrepreneurs.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, born from a newspaper chain, has turned its focus to media innovation. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, founded in 1934 by a General Motors chief, focuses on science and technology to drive the nation's prosperity. Sloan was an early funder of the Smithsonian's DNA barcoding project.
Such funders are betting that early seed money can have a big impact with the right ideas and entrepreneurs.
“If there was more funding,” Bannick said, “there would be a lot more great ideas that could emerge.”