Google announced a plan yesterday that begins to fulfill the pledge it made to investors when it went public nearly four years ago to reserve 1 percent of its profit and equity to "make the world a better place."
The beneficiaries of Google's money range from groups that are fighting disease to those developing a commercial plug-in car.
The company's philanthropy - Google.org, or DotOrg as Googlers call it - will spend up to $175 million in its first round of grants and investments over the next three years, Google officials said.
While it is like other companies' foundations in making grants, it will also be untraditional in making for-profit investments, encouraging Google employees to participate directly and lobbying public officials for changes in policies, company officials said.
Google may be one of America's 10 richest corporations as measured by market value, but its budget for philanthropy is minuscule compared with the $70 billion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Still, Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, expressed a hope back in 2004 that "someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact." What it lacks in size, though, Google.org may make up in cachet.
Larry Brilliant, a medical doctor who took on the role of director of Google.org 18 months ago, said he could not even begin to count how many spending proposals he had seen.
"There are 6.5 billion people in the world," Brilliant said in a recent interview, "and in the last 18 months I've met 6.4 billion, all of whom want, if not some of our money, then some of the Google pixie dust."
Brilliant, who moved to an ashram in northern India in the 1970s and went on to play a major role in eradicating smallpox in the country, likened his moral quandary in figuring out how to spend Google.org's money to that faced by a saint wandering the streets of Benares.
"There are 500 steps between the road and the Ganges," he said. "On every step are beggars, lepers, people who have no arms or legs, people literally starving. The saint has a couple of rupees; how does a good and honorable person make a resource allocation decision?"
DotOrg has focused on what it can do "uniquely," said Sheryl Sandberg, vice president for global online sales and operations at Google, who, like all employees, is permitted to spend 20 percent of her time at the foundation or in other charitable ventures. "If you do things other people could do, you're not adding value."
In contrast to DotOrg's close tie to the dotcom company, employees of Microsoft Corp. have made Gates wealthy but have no official influence in how the Gates Foundation money is spent.
The only urgency imposed on the foundation is how soon it can live up to the expectations. "Building a new ecosystem is not an overnight phenomenon," Brilliant said. "Here at Google if you have a project, you press Send. We won't work that quickly."
But for all the enthusiasm for the new organization, there are critics.
"It's wonderful that this company is devoting massive resources to fixing big world problems, but they are taking an engineer's perspective to them," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia.
"Machines and software are not always the answer. Global problems arise from how humans have undervalued each other and miscommunicated with each other."
He pointed to Google.org's decision not to take a step like financing scholarships for girls in India who have not had access to education.
"That's what is so naive about Google.org's approach," he said. "If you can educate a thousand girls in one state in India, you've already made a bigger difference than 99 percent of the human beings on Earth because every one of those girls can make a difference."
The process of determining what to finance was not easy, said Jacquelline Fuller, the head of advocacy at Google.org. Beginning in the spring of 2007, "the 20 team members had 20 ideas."
It took them almost a year to winnow down the list. Although it was just announcing its initiatives yesterday, Google.org has already begun to give away some of its money.