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How Google and Social Entrepreneurs Perpetuate the Digital Divide Among Nonprofits

google.pngIn the past 10 years, I have been working to address the digital divide, which is the gap between those who have access to and training with technology and those without. I serve as the Executive Director of TechMission, which runs the largest association of Black and Latino led nonprofits addressing the digital divide and manages, which is one of the most visited web portals of Black and Latino nonprofit leaders. During that time, I have seen many effective initiatives in addressing the digital divide. At the same time, I’ve seen many efforts that have been very well-intentioned, but in the end may have only made matters worse.

I grew up in the inner-city, but later went to MIT and co-founded the Internet Telecoms Consortium with one of the fathers of the Internet (David Clark) to study the social and business implications of the Internet. The most important thing I learned while studying complex systems at MIT is that often you make a change to the system and the result is exactly the opposite of what you were expecting.

Case in point: my wife and I went to Woodstock ’99—a complex system of people, alcohol, drugs, bands and unusually hot weather. At the concert, there was a nonprofit group wanting to promote peace, and it gave out thousands of “peace candles.” The result was the opposite of what they had intended because they had not thought through the consequences of giving candles to thousands of people who were inebriated and enraged from the extreme heat and exploitive prices at the concert. The result was that people used the candles to start hundreds of fires and burn everything in sight. A group wanting to promote peace at Woodstock unintentionally became a catalyst for riots, and in the worst circumstances, this is how complex systems work.

Addressing the digital divide and trying to help under-resourced communities is an extremely complex system. My assessment is that some of the largest efforts to address the digital divide by social entrepreneurs, including those at Google, may have unintentionally made matters worse among nonprofits.

Is Google Grants Hurting Black and Latino-Led Nonprofits?

In the past few years, Google has “given away” $300 million worth of free advertising to nonprofit organizations through Google Grants. Following Google’s value of employee input, Google leaves most of the grantmaking decisions to regular employees. In the United States, Google’s employees are disproportionately White and Asian and from elite schools. These employees then give grants to organizations with interest like theirs and people they know, which most often are also White or Asian and from elite schools.fundingbias.png

This creates a bias in the process, but that is common in the nonprofit world. In fact, according to a report from the Greenlining Institute, foundations only give 3.6% of their funds to organizations led by people of color although people of color make up 52.4% of poverty in the USA. This bias is shown graphically in the adjacent diagram.

If that bias were the only effect Google Grants were having, then they would be no different than most foundations. The problem is how Google Grants works, by giving away “virtual money” that people can then bid on ads, they have essentially flooded the market for nonprofit ads with $300 million in virtual money.

Economists would say that this acts as a “tax” on other users, so that only $150 million is donated by Google, but the other $150 million comes from the increased bid cost for other advertisers, which are primarily nonprofits. Let’s say that in the USA, Google gives 95% of its grants to White and Asian led nonprofits, while only 5% to Black and Latino (or other) nonprofits (which is a reasonable projection based on the research we compiled). Ideally, grants would be distributed to more closely reflect the demographics of need, and 52.4% of grants in the USA would go to Black and Latino-led nonprofits since they represent 52.4% of poverty in the nation.

The end result of this bias is that Google Grants, rather than helping Black and Latino led nonprofits, is actually taxing them to give discounts primarily to White nonprofits. The model I’ve generated shows that the effect of Google Grants on Black and Latino-led nonprofits is that they are “taxed” by about $7.3 million by paying increased advertising fees to provide a subsidy to White-led nonprofits. 


Google Grants is not the only example of starting with good intentions to change a system, but having unintended effects, as many tech-focused nonprofits serve as other examples.

Our organization did some research on the board and staff demographics of the leading technology-focused nonprofits, and found that on average about 80% of their staff are White (and often from elite schools). These organizations develop strategies, policies and values that reflect their staffing and boards. Our staff have gone to several of these conferences led by these organizations, and the conference attendees are also more than 90% White. We have followed their grantmaking processes and seen that more than 80% of their grants go to White-led organizations. These demographics of technology focused nonprofits based on our research are shown in the diagram below. The significant factor is that in every category, there is dramatically lower percentage of people of color as compared to the demographics of the low-income communities they are serving. The result is that most technology focused nonprofits are more reflecting the digital divide rather than transforming it. To really transform the digital divide, it requires representation of those on the other side of the divide at every level in the organization.

The same pattern applies to much of the new social entrepreneurship movement. Most the emerging social entrepreneurs that are getting funded are led by White people from elite schools. They are establishing a culture and values in the social philanthropy sector that largely reflects White cultural values from elite business schools. The end result is that these social ventures get all the funding, squeezing out more grass-roots Black and Latino led organizations. This means that too often social ventures are perpetuating the same divides that they are supposedly addressing.


How Social Entrepreneurs Can Avoid Doing More Harm than Good

No one wants to try to do good, and then have the results only cause more harm than good. So what are social entrepreneurs to do? Am I promoting a Malcolm X philosophy that says that White people should just go home? 

Of course not. The fact that I am White, and leading a nonprofit, shows that I believe that there is another way.

The reason why social entrepreneurs are encountering unintended consequences in bringing change to complex systems is that many do not understand one of the most important aspects of the system—the culture of at-risk communities. Social entrepreneurs need to strive to reflect the culture and diversity of those we are serving at all levels in nonprofits. At TechMission, the people of color are the majority at almost every level of our organization (board, senior staff, etc.). The result is that when you look at the demographics of those using our websites like, we have almost twice the percentage of people of color represented as our nonprofit counterparts (as shown above).

We have researched and written extensively on how nonprofits and funders can avoid this bias (see additional resources below). Based on that research and experience, we provide the following recommendations to social entrepreneurs:

1.  Be intentional about reaching out to faith-based organizations doing social services.

Why? Our research indicates that about two-thirds of Black and Latino-led nonprofits are in churches or other faith-based organizations. Comparitively, about two-thirds of White-led nonprofits are secular. This means that on average, faith-based organizations are about twice as likely to be Black or Latino-led. This has important implications for funders, because if they will not fund faith-based organizations, then they are cutting their chances of funding a Black or Latino-led nonprofit by 50%. Most funders will support faith-based organizations if their focus is on social services and they do not discriminate in who they serve. Of more than 50 other tech companies that we have identified, Google Grants has, in effect, the most restrictive policy toward faith-based social service organizations. The faith-based social services sector represents about one-third of the total social services sector, but appears to only be less than 1% of Google Grant awardees. In the 1950’s there were literacy tests for voting that excluded a large number of Black voters. Today this has been replaced with religious tests for funding that is excluding the majority of Black and Latino-led nonprofits. Restrictions to not support faith-based organizations can communicate a paternalistic attitude that secularization is advancing the cause of good by “educating superstitious natives” to believe in the doctrines of elite academia. It is just the “bad missionary model” but with a new name. They fail to recognize that globally, 97.5% of people profess some faith. Often by having restrictions on faith, these organizations think that they are blocking right-wing religious groups like Jerry Fallwell, but in reality they are usually blocking Black and Latino religious leaders that could become the next Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Have diversity measurements and affirmative action at every level in the organization.

Why? Values and culture are set by those in power in an organization. If a nonprofit has a significantly different set of values than the community it is serving, then that community will need to assimilate those values to get support. Religious missionaries in the 20th century have been replaced with nonprofit missionaries in the 21st century. If a nonprofit does not reflect the culture and values of the community it is serving, then it cannot help but be like the “missionaries” that teach the “natives” how to talk White, dress White, and respond to outcome measures reflecting values of the White community. The only solution is to have diversity measurements and affirmative action at every level. This enables diversity at every level (constituents, entry level staff, middle management, senior management, board and grantees) needed for a leadership pipeline.

3. Immerse yourself in the community you are serving and learn from it.

Why? The difference between strong faith-based leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa and “bad missionaries” is that the former immersed themselves in the communities they were serving. At TechMission nearly all of our staff and board live in at-risk communities, and the majority come from low-income backgrounds. It is only when you “go native” to the point where at-risk communities become “your people” that you are not acting as a nonprofit missionary. Immersion means not only your geographic location, but also your friendships and community.

Changing the Culture of Social Entrepreneurship Programs

Social entrepreneurs are often trying to change complex systems, but unfortunately, without understanding those systems they can often do more harm than good. The primary element of understanding that is missing here is an understanding of the culture of those being served by social entrepreneurs. For the social entrepreneurship movement to be successful, it must change its culture.

Currently the culture of the social entrepreneurship movement primarily reflects that of elite schools which have social entrepreneurship programs. This culture is extremely antagonistic to the cultures in most at-risk communities.

Organizations like Google and other social philanthropists need to make sure that those in their grantmaking process reflect the demographics and culture of those they are trying to reach. They also should consider eliminating restrictions that will not fund social service organizations if they are faith-based, while being intentional about creating a culture that welcomes religious organizations, where the majority of Black and Latino nonprofit leaders are.

Because Google Grants makes up about one-third of the traffic most of the tech nonprofits, the increased traffic (and resulting links from visitors) from that visibility increases their web search rankings. The end result is that the Google Grants process is that White nonprofits receive significantly higher search rankings than Black and Latino nonprofits. Given Google’s market share, overall this has a very significant affect of "Whitening" Google’s search rankings within the nonprofit sector. If Google does not bring its policies more in line with that of its peer technology companies, then it risk facing a public relations issues of being perceived as having an racial bias compare to other technology companies by "Whitening" its search rankings among nonprofits.  

People of color already represent the majority globally, the majority of poverty in the USA, and the majority in many major US cities. Soon they will represent the majority in the nation as a whole. As these demographic shifts happen, if the social entrepreneurship movement does not shift its culture to more closely reflect the cultures of those it is serving, then it risks becoming relegated to the sidelines of history. 


Additional Resources

About Andrew Sears

Andrew has been working to address the digital divide since 1998 and is the founder and executive Director of TechMission. He grew up in an inner-city environment, and later received his MS in Technology and Policy and MS in Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At MIT, he co-founded the Internet and Telecoms consortium, a multi-million dollar research group focused on determining the social and business implications of the Internet. He has also worked as an independent consultant on technology strategy with clients including St. Paul Venture Capital, Sprint and several Boston startups.

Special thanks to Natalie Parrague who provided research and editing support for this project.

Background on TechMission and this Issue

TechMission's national partners represent over 30,000 local organizations, 4 million volunteers serving over 40 million low-income individuals in the USA.  TechMission ranks among the top 10 organizations focused on nonprofit technology, and among this group we have the highest representation from Black and Hispanic communities. Our websites received over 1.15 million unique visitors in the first half of 2009. We started doing this research because we saw that with the current economic crisis, the Black and Latino led nonprofits were the first to see a loss of funds, so we started investigating why that was. The first area we saw was the religious bias.  Given that Google has 75% market share of search, and they have the most hostile attitudes towards faith-based organizations, we wrote Google letters (sent to Sadie Ferguson, Alana Karen, Larry Brilliant, Gregory Miller and the Google Grants office) on July 17, 2008, Feb. 11, 2009 and March 19, 2009. We never heard a response. As we continued our research, we realized that the issue was most common among most social entreprenuers in the tech sector and foundations, and that there was also a significant bias across race. Since then, we have written a series of articles and presentations (listed above) to raise awareness to this issue.

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