An inside look at the Google.org Fellowship

Continuing our series of Google.org Team Profiles, hear how Google.org Manager Erin Hattersley helped organizations leverage Googler time and expertise in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Erin (far left), pre-COVID hosting a panel discussion with AI Impact Challenge grantees who received support from Googlers to advance their projects

What was your journey to joining the Google.org team?

EH: I’ve always been optimistic about the potential for technology to help address challenges facing society and I believe in the power of collaboration to achieve that, which I’ve seen first-hand throughout my career. My first job after graduating college focused on using technology to solve public health and public safety problems. That job helped me realize the power of bringing together the public and private sector to solve problems. I’m no stranger to recognizing the importance of technology that can deliver critical services from my past work pre-Google, including overseeing the development of a smallpox vaccination program with the U.S. government. As my career progressed, I gravitated toward opportunities to develop scalable products, and in 2011, I set my sights on Google because I felt they had the greatest ability to effect large scale change for good through technology. After a dozen applications, I joined an incubation team that focused on piloting innovative technologies to support small businesses. No matter my core role, I always sought out volunteer opportunities (Google calls them 20% projects) with social impact teams at Google and by doing so was invited to join the Google for Nonprofits team where I led a portfolio of work that leveraged volunteers to help nonprofits across 50 countries better use Google technology. In 2018, I joined Google.org which allowed me to dedicate my attention and expertise to leading skills based volunteering across the Americas to help solve the most pressing challenges facing society today which my first boss at Google can tell you was my ultimate goal.

How did the Google.org Fellowship get started?

EH: Time and time again, we heard from nonprofits that they could solve their biggest challenges more effectively by pairing their knowledge of local communities with additional resources, specifically technical expertise. After years of experimenting with programs where Googlers served as part-time advisors, we really challenged ourselves to think big — how could we 10x the impact? Ultimately we landed on an approach where team’s of full-time Googlers can spend up to 6 months offering their pro bono support through the Google.org Fellowship. We conducted pilots to evaluate the feasibility and impact of this approach for both the participating organization and the Fellows. Personally, the moment I recognized the true value the Google.org Fellowship could provide was at a criminal justice panel where experts in the field were discussing the lack of national jail data transparency and the challenges associated with accessing that information. The speakers imagined a solution that would require aggregating jail data from 3,000 counties in the US and would likely take years to build. I looked over at the team of Google.org Fellows that I was leading and our colleagues at the Vera Institute of Justice — we all smiled knowing that we would soon be announcing the results of our collaboration: the first ever database of national jail populations. And we’ve been so happy to see this work be leveraged to affect public policy in response to COVID-19.

What are some projects that Fellows have been working on during the COVID-19 pandemic?

EH: In 2019, we expanded our Fellowships to include civic entities, and began projects in San Francisco, San Jose, and Boulder where we focused on helping local governments increase access to social services and benefits for vulnerable communities. This experience allowed us to quickly respond to support those hardest hit by COVID-19. New York State approached us a few weeks after COVID-19 triggered spikes in unemployment applications and two weeks later I had a team of ten Google.org Fellows working full time to support the state. First, the team of Fellows with expertise across program and product management, user experience research and design, and engineering embedded themselves within the State to get a solid understanding of the challenges at hand and to build strong relationships with the team (virtually, of course). They spent the next six months conducting research, designing, building, and launching an empathetic and simple open source tool to help millions of residents across the State access critical social services more easily like food, housing, and COVID-related services.

Another Fellowship that we supported in response to COVID-19 was with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). NDWA is the nation’s leading voice for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States. In March 2020, they launched the Coronavirus Care Fund to provide emergency relief for domestic workers facing hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. NDWA estimates that 75% of domestic workers lost their jobs due to COVID-19. A team of six Google.org Fellows joined NDWA full-time to build a cash assistance platform to distribute emergency cash to domestic workers quickly, thoughtfully, responsibly, and securely who in turn have used it for food, rent, medicine and more.

Erin leading Google.org Fellows across projects remotely during COVID-19

What makes a successful Fellowship?

EH: Googlers are exceptional at thinking big and almost more important than the final deliverables is sharing the “how” we approach problem solving and each phase of developing a solution like user-centered research and design. The real benefit to the Googlers comes from the opportunity to work alongside the organization’s staff who are subject matter experts and leaders in their respective communities — it is that combination that makes the magic happen. We’ve found that Googlers are eager to lend their talents for good and that the experience is rewarding for them from both a personal and professional development perspective.

It’s also important for our Fellows to think strategically about how to set organizations up for long-term success after their Fellowship has ended. We often say, “Build with, not for.” For example, when working with New York State, our Fellows introduced product development best practices to integrate user feedback throughout the process and helped customize a dashboard to better measure the impact and effectiveness of the tool after launch.

Finally, we always ask ourselves, “Is this a solution that the entire sector could benefit from?” When the answer is “yes,” we open source what we’re building. That way, solutions can be more easily replicated by other nonprofits and civic entities. The cash assistance platform that the Fellows and NDWA developed was a good example of such an opportunity. As a result, we convened ten nonprofits with varying levels of experience in distributing emergency cash for a design sprint. The sprint identified a need for additional shared solutions that could advance the sector as a whole and we are in the process of advancing these solutions with our grantees and distilling and disseminating technical best practices.

What was your favorite experience working with Google volunteers so far?

EH: When the Special Olympics World Games were held in Los Angeles in 2015, I was on the Google for Nonprofits team which provides Google products to nonprofits at no cost. I spent two years identifying ways to take Google’s support to the next level and to advance acceptance and inclusion for people with disabilities. I ended up bringing 500 Google volunteers to partner with the athletes and to run the games’ social media command center in addition to securing in kind product donations from 10 Google teams including a first of its kind Google Doodle. Disability inclusion is a cause that’s near and dear to my heart because my incredible nephew Drew is a member of this community so I will forever be an advocate. I’ll never forget how it felt to be among Special Olympics athletes from across the globe in a fully inclusive and accessible environment with him, my family, and the Google volunteers. I had never been a place more inclusive than the World Games and if the rest of the world were like that, it would be a better place for everyone.

Erin with her nephew at the Special Olympics World Games in 2015

What keeps you motivated in your work?

EH: Technology has had a transformative impact on our world; however, this progress has not always been shared equitably. As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, it is up to leaders of our industry, Google included, to ensure that the next chapter of advancements provide access and opportunity for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. I see the Google.org Fellowship and my role on this team as an opportunity to make progress towards realizing that goal, and I believe we’ll be more successful if we continue to collaborate directly with nonprofits, governments, private corporations, and communities to address these challenges together. As this African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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