The Interview: Google’s Giving Guru

With Janet Reilly

Jacquelline Fuller

We all have our ideas of what a dream job would look like, but I think we can agree that running, the charitable arm of Google, would be pretty cool. Just ask Jacquelline Fuller, who, since 2014, has had that job, leading one of the biggest corporate giving programs on the planet. Last year alone, gave away $300 million (part of $1 billion dispersed in the last five years), funding nonprofits that support racial equity, economic empowerment, access to quality education and global COVID-19 responses, to name just a few.

Before initially coming to Google in 2007, Fuller served as deputy director of global health at the Bill & MelindaJanet Reilly Gates Foundation, where, among other things, she moved her family to India for a year to help launch an HIV-prevention initiative.

The daughter of a diplomat, Fuller expected one day to follow in her father’s footsteps, but the pull of social justice was just too strong, leading her to a decades-long career in philanthropy.

I sat down with Fuller on her first day back in her San Francisco office in more than a year, where we talked about the role of corporate giving, risk capital and taking on the world’s biggest challenges — one at a time.

Meet Jacquelline Fuller

“I think it’s fair to say: OK, you say you’re doing social impact as a company. Let’s look at the scale and the seriousness and whether you’re investing the best of who you are.”

So you come to work every day to give away Google’s money to make the world a little better. Do you think you have one of the best jobs ever?

The nature of work is changing, but every day my team wakes up and thinks about how to take all of Google’s strengths and resources to be helpful to others. We’ve invested more than a billion dollars in the last few years in nonprofits. But we also have our Googlers, our tech experts. It’s very unique to have someone who’s an expert on artificial intelligence or machine learning available to come alongside a nonprofit or a government.

Give me a little bit of a history of

It’s actually pretty interesting because Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], our founders, started before Google was even a company. From the beginning, they said, “Hey, we want philanthropy to be a core part of our values and who we are and what we do as a company.” But they didn’t say what to work on, or necessarily how. That’s the job of me and my team. Because this is our headquarters, our hometown, we want to think about how we’re showing up locally in the Bay Area. But we’re a global company, and so we want to be globally minded.

There are limitless resources here at Google. There are also limitless problems in the world that need to be addressed. How do you determine what issues to focus on?

For us as a company, economic opportunity is really key. That has been a cornerstone of our work over the past decade. How do we ensure that people — especially the most marginalized, distressed communities — are able to participate and take advantage of the opportunities in the digital economy? Education is another huge one. Thinking about things like how to bring online education at scale.

Then we also think about not just the what, in terms of topics, but also the how. I’ll take The Trevor Project. They serve the LGBT community, especially youth. They came to us asking for help with their crisis helpline. We recognized that that would be an area where we could bring machine learning and natural-language processing to help understand and prioritize, from the language in the text, who’s in a crisis situation. We sent a team of Googlers for more than six months to embed full time with The Trevor Project, and we actually helped them build the product and then train the team on how to run it afterwards. That’s an example of where we want to show up.

Have you embedded folks in a nonprofit here in the Bay Area?

We worked with the San Francisco government around homelessness and affordable housing. In talking with the government, we saw that they were having a challenge getting affordable housing actually built. So we sent a team to work with the city, to analyze what was happening, in terms of getting through all the permitting and the processing, and to identify improvements in systems, in order to help speed up that work.

What was the result of that?

We helped build a tool, called DAHLIA [that provides a current list of affordable housing in San Francisco], which still lives on the SF city website. We just launched a partnership in Detroit to help build an affordable housing portal for their population.

With the Gates Foundation, Fuller and her family lived in India, where she launched the largest privately funded public health initiative in the world.

How do you determine if the money you give to nonprofits is being used to truly effect change?

Well, being Google, we love our data.

Yes, you do.

We want to set [the nonprofits we fund] up for success. We want to build on their strong track record and help them 10X what they can do. So part of it is thoroughly vetting. We make sure that we’re talking with folks, looking for data and evidence, and that we’re understanding that proof of concept, what they’ve done to date, as well as then making a judgment about their ability to execute going forward.

Then we sit down with the nonprofits, and together we design. Especially our larger grants, we want to make sure that they’re milestone driven. That helps us with accountability. It also gives the nonprofit the assurance that we’re a strong partner, and as they’re successful, we are going to be with them every step of the way.

Sometimes we look back and say, “OK, that didn’t go to plan.” But I think it’s important that philanthropy fails sometimes. The huge engines of change and scale are always going to be government and the market. The role of philanthropy is to come alongside and be catalytic and fill gaps. Part of being catalytic and filling gaps is making sure you are providing risk capital. We’re willing to fund ideas for new things [our grantees] want to do, which is frankly, capital that’s really hard to get.

Can you give me an example of where you made an investment and that risk capital really paid off?

Yeah, I can give you one that’s full circle, that started out looking like a failure and has come around. One of our early bets was on a group called Charity Water. They’re bringing clean water to underserved areas. They’re doing so in a way where they use technology to help both map where the need is and to build in accountability for that clean water delivery over time.

I’m happiest when: Hiking.
The biggest risk I ever took was: Getting married at 23.
My biggest regret is: I wish I had found my voice earlier. As a woman.
If I had a magic wand, I would: Create a sustainable organic farm.

Is this a global project?

Yes, it’s largely in developing countries [in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America]. So, we were talking to them [Charity Water] about the problem. With clean water it’s not that there is just a lack of access to clean water, it’s that five years after you build and drill that well, is it actually working? There’s no closed loop there on whether things are being maintained and still working and serving the community.

Important to know…

Yes. Well, they had a technology that looked very promising that could go on a well in a rural desert environment, say like Eritrea, and withstand 115-degree temperatures and constant use to beam back whether it was working. So, we invested in them. It was really hard in the beginning because all of the technologies they tried, all of them failed. We thought, “OK, it was a good bet. It’s a good organization. It was worth a try, but it’s probably not going to work.” But, actually, we re-upped with them and gave a little bit more money. We thought, “You know, we think they’re close.”

And, it turns out they were able to solve that problem and build the technology and install it. So, now they have a system, globally, where all the wells they’re building and all the legacy wells they have are incorporating this technology that’s helping them see if a well is still in service or if it needs attention.

That’s fantastic. Skeptics of corporate giving say it has a lot more to do with good PR for the company than it does, in fact, about doing good. What’s your response to that?

I think people have good reason to be skeptical. It’s always good to ask questions and look for evidence. For a major global company like Google, we should be investing in the billions. I think it’s fair to say: OK, you say you’re doing social impact as a company. Let’s look at the scale and the seriousness and whether you’re investing the best of who you are. We want to bring the best of who we are to the table. That’s real resources. That’s partnerships with community-led organizations. It’s things like getting our Googlers to roll up their sleeves, embed, and work full time on these projects.

Before you came here in 2007, you had eight years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What did you learn there that you brought to Google?

Well, I learned the importance of data and evidence.

A family hike at Lake Tahoe for Fuller, her husband, John, and their two daughters Hosanna (left) and Sophie.

Your father was a diplomat. You studied political science at UCLA and went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Did you think you might follow in your dad’s footsteps and work in the State Department?

You know, I did think that. Growing up with a father who was focused on international relations… we went to Russia before the wall fell. We lived in Germany for a year. So I had a lot of international exposure, and I was really interested in international relations. But I’ve always had this passion around social justice. In college, I was exposed more to the reality of how issues like racism and sexism and the structural inequalities our country and our society have set up so many of the problems that we have today. I really oriented towards that, and so I changed my major my senior year from arms control, which had been my focus, to urban poverty and public policy.

That sense of social justice and social equity — do you think that came from your extensive travels?

I think part of it came from having lived internationally as a child and being exposed to a lot of different living realities. I get young people asking me a lot about my career, and it’s not like I grew up thinking, “You know, I want to work in corporate philanthropy.” It was a lot of zigzags: I think I want to serve in the government, because government is how we serve people at scale, the most underserved. Then, wow, I really need more expertise. I’m going to go get a graduate degree, to build more depth. Oh, there’s this nonprofit, this private enterprise that’s doing amazing things. I want to be part of them. Oh wait, here’s a company who’s going to take philanthropy to the next level, in the same way that Bill and Melinda Gates did for private philanthropy. So it’s been a bit of a zigzag, but with a clear North Star.

What inspires you?

I get so inspired and motivated by the leaders. At great risk and cost to themselves, often they have this drive for social justice, this drive for equity, this drive to serve. Then they have this key insight or innovation. They are just throwing everything they have, everything about who they are and their teams, at that problem. Nadine Burke Harris is a local example.

We funded her six, seven years ago, maybe. She was the one who really came up with this idea of ACEs [Adverse Childhood Experiences] and thinking about how these adverse childhood events — the childhood trauma, the childhood stress — influence health and outcomes later in life, and then what to do about it. We actually backed her way back when. [And] Sal Khan, for example. Another local hero. We were his first big check. We funded him when he was recording videos in his closet at home and was just really starting Khan Academy.

What’s next for you?

We saw with COVID that women were twice as likely to lose their jobs. I saw a stat where women in the U.S. had taken on 15 additional hours of work, in terms of child care or schooling or just making it work in this new environment. We have a $25 million global impact challenge for women and girls that we’ve launched. We’re going to announce the winners in September. The idea there is, there are women leaders globally who have these brilliant ideas. Let’s find them. Let’s empower them with money, with Googlers, really think about how Google can walk alongside them in their mission.

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