What should charity look like?

The news on Google’s recent charitable donations got us thinking about common assumptions about charity. What prompted this head-scratching? For those who missed it, here is the news:

Chromebooks for refugees? Don’t they need food and water? Turns out they do, of course, need these necessities first. However, after those needs are met, refugees need to access information on jobs, paperwork, learning the language of their adoptive country, most of which are online. Enter Google's donation of Chromebooks. The Chromebooks will in fact not be donated to individuals but to NGOs who will run cyber cafes where multiple beneficiaries access the technology. 3-D printing technology belongs in the lab right? The prize money for 3D printing will probably go to a for-profit company that manufactures and sells 3-D printers. One or more of these printers will be then be bought for the NGO in question. How is that even charity?

We tend to see charity as benevolent, emotional and driven from the heart. Awards that take the form of purchases of cutting-edge machines or grants of licences for special software don’t cast the same fuzzy feeling that we’re expecting.

But it’s highly likely that Google has done their due diligence well and the gift of a 3-D printing machine will enable Ratna Nidhi to expand their impact and give more people prosthetic limbs. Donors can presently sponsor limbs for amputees at a cost of Rs1,900-2,200. The 3-D technology will enable Ratna Nidhi to simply take the amputee’s measurements, upload them to their cloud software and send the 3-D printed leg directly to the beneficiary. It eliminates the need for the beneficiary to travel to Ratna Nidhi’s centre while providing a custom designed limb at low cost. In effect, the Google award gives NGOs a chance to be ahead of the curve at no cost.

This award was part of the Google Impact Challenge for Disabilities, which funds ideas that can improve the lives of people living with disabilities. Google also donates grants that enable NGOs to run thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising campaigns on the Google network. Microsoft, Adobe and other giants give free licences to their software to NGOs, who can ill-afford market rates for these products. Like corporate brands with deep pockets who spend millions of dollars competing for your attention, NGOs too need to spread the word about their work. Thanks to initiatives like these, they are brought to a somewhat comparable standing as their for-profit peers.

Perhaps the time is here that companies apply business acumen when selecting the vehicle through which they make their donations!