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Google Chrome for a cause, or, nonprofit deathmatch strikes again

Google's Chrome for a Cause

Google has initiated a project it calls Chrome for a Cause, in which every person who uses its Chrome browser will generate a small donation for each tab that they open, to a charity of their choice. The project runs from Dec. 15 to 19, and includes five charities: The Nature Conservancy, charity: water, Doctors Without Borders, Un Techo para mi País, and Room to Read. Google will donate a combined total of up to $1 million to the five charities.

To have your Chrome tabs count, you must first install a small extension to your copy of Chrome. There’s a maximum of 250 tabs per day, and one tab per second, that count toward your cause. You also must have a Google account to submit your totals.

What I like about it

It’s great that Google is directing money to nonprofits, and not the usual milquetoast public awareness charities, but organizations that do good, concrete things. And it’s nice that on the Chrome for a Cause page, they have links to “donate directly” under the description of each organization.

It’s also nice that people who participate in Chrome for a Cause get to choose — from Google’s list of five charities — where they want their portion of the money generated to go.

What I’m less thrilled about

The cleverness of it is lost on me. “We’ll donate money for every tab you open, if you download an extension for it,” seems like if a car dealer said, “Hey, for the month of December, every time you open the back left door of your car, I’ll donate 10 cents to a charity that you choose. (But you have to come in to the dealership to get a counter installed on that door.)”

I get that it’s tied to the use of the browser, and anything that gets people to use the browser more (and set up Google accounts if they don’t have them) is a plus for them. So it makes sense for Google to put the tabs-for-charity schtick on this project, but I don’t see how it makes any kind of sense at all to the public. Which leads me to…

It feels creepy that Google is exploiting the holiday season of goodwill to get more usage out of its browser. I know that corporations don’t make donations to nonprofits without getting something in return, but this seems more gratuitous than usual. And, of course, it could breed the ultimate form of “slacktivism” — ineffective digital activism — in which opening a tab to donate a few cents assuages a person’s sense of needing to contribute to making the world a better place.

Not even a glancing mention on their page of how much is donated for each tab. Once you download the extension, it calculates how much your tabs have donated so far, in things rather than dollars (e.g. 0.3 trees; the full breakdown is on their blog), so it’s hard to know exactly how much each tab is worth in monetary terms. But even measuring it in what it will buy, why should we have to install the extension in order to find out what our possible impact will be?

It promotes the idea of organizational competition — the nonprofit deathmatch. Take a look at the screenshot above: You can either donate 9 vaccinations, or 23 books, or one person’s clean water. I know that these kinds of competitions are all the rage — they even have a name, crowdsourcing philanthropy — but it’s frustrating to me how it’s rooted in a scarcity model, in which organizations must compete rather than collaborate. I’m sure, for instance, that each of these nonprofits is encouraging their members to “donate tabs” to them, rather than others.

In fact, since Google has capped its donation at $1 million, and it’s relatively certain they will reach that amount given their reach, what participants are really voting for is allocation. “We’ve got a million dollars; vote with your tabs on what percentage should go to The Nature Conservancy,” they’re saying. So every vote to one organization takes money away from another.

How it could be better

Be transparent about what the impact is. Google should say, on the Chrome for Cause page itself, how many tabs you have to open to plant a tree (for instance).

Integrate concrete actions from the charities. Doctors Without Borders doesn’t just ask people for money — they have, for instance, a big campaign to pressure governments not to prevent affordable generic medicines from being exported to the Global South, and another advocating for humanitarian food aid that provides adequate nutrition. At the end of each day, when a person submits their votes, why not end with something like “Great! Now here are more things you can do to support this charity…”

Pick one charity each week/month/season. This might be a little controversial, since more exposure for more nonprofits seems like a good thing, and part of this project’s appeal is the ability for people to pick where their money goes. But by acting as a kind of “matching grant” for a nonprofit — “We’ll donate $1 million to this organization, if our users open at least 1 million tabs this week” — Google can generate exposure for the organization and its browser, without forcing groups into the boxing ring against one another.

Pick one charity field each week/month/season. Instead of choosing a single environmental group for its donation, Google could choose to donate money equally to five or ten nonprofits in the same sector. This would encourage collaboration between nonprofits working on the same issue to work together in asking their supporters to participate.

Support nonprofits year-round. It’s cute that Google is donating some money in December, to (sort of) coincide with the holidays, but there’s no reason they can’t do this for longer than a week. By making it an ongoing project and cycling through different organizations, Google can donate money to nonprofits, but also give its far more lucrative asset: attention.

What are your thoughts on Chrome for a Cause?

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