Elusive social impact

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Google’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” is understated. It implies that doing good in the world is easy and obvious, yet missed by many of the world’s most powerful organizations. Just don’t be evil. It’s like Nike: Just do it. How obvious!

And as I read that Google is backing away from the motto, I wonder whether Google is giving itself room to be evil.

Is Google evil? Not in my opinion (or Phil’s). But some people thought so over enabling censorship in China. In the future, Google will face more tough decisions about social impact, especially on privacy, promotion of information, and anti-trust. Sometimes real economic value will be on the line over real social objections. My guess is that value will win.

The point is that the way the world works is executives are measured in dollars and cents. “Don’t be evil” is not measured. There’s no score. No success. No way to win or lose. This is a huge challenge for companies with social missions, nonprofits, and even people who just want to make a difference.

My friend volunteered to work with an NGO in a small Nicaraguan town. She moved into a house full of volunteers who were immature, lazy, and disinterested. Most were completing some kind of school requirement. One European girl was doing “social service” as a substitute for required military service in her home country. Instead she did nothing. These people should all be fired. Instead, they are a valued statistic reported to the board of directors: 10 summer volunteers! Subtext: give us more money.

NGOs and government missions (USAID anyone?) have a notorious reputation for being inefficient. It’s not because the people are different than the people who work in businesses, but because of the way the world is measured. Once dollars and cents aren’t the goal, measurement becomes fuzzy. Phil and the new class of social entrepreneurs want to change the game. The challenge is large.

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One Response to “Elusive social impact”

  1. Google hedgefund? « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […] No matter the case, this is A gray frontier for Google between their fiduciary profit motive and their avowed sense of public good. This is a familiar theme. […]

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