“We must do more to support underserved and marginalized communities right now.”

Continuing our series of Google.org Team Profiles, Google.org’s Asia Pacific Lead, Marija Ralic, shares her perspective on philanthropy and the transformational power of believing in and investing in people.

Marija with students in Cambodia.

What inspired you to pursue a career in philanthropy?

I was born in a village in Serbia. In my hometown, there was just one school with two rooms. My grade shared a classroom with the next grade and we had one teacher, Dragi, teaching both groups simultaneously. My teacher would teach me and my peers for a few minutes and then he would turn to the other side of the classroom to facilitate a different class with the older students. Looking back, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him, but he made it work.

Teacher Dragi showed me how powerful it can be to have someone care about and invest in you. His thoughtful guidance enabled me to find my purpose and provided me with the skills and mindsets to pursue my passions fully. He helped me realize that if I’ve helped to change one person’s life for the better, I am living a fulfilling life myself. And philanthropy is an excellent way to do just that.

How do you approach grantmaking across Asia Pacific (APAC)?

The COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across APAC in January, affecting millions of people directly and billions more through the impact on the regional economy. Based on the issues most deeply affecting communities across APAC, and where we can do the most good with our grants and other resources, we support organizations in the region focused on three main topics: digital responsibility and education; health and humanitarian response; and economic relief and recovery.

When making a grant, we look for organizations that are audacious, innovative, diverse, focus on supporting underserved communities, and demonstrate immense care in their approach. It is important to me that the leadership of the organizations we support reflect the communities they serve because ultimately, the best solutions come from those that deeply understand the context. Across our work, we also look for organizations leveraging technology, like AI, that has the potential to greatly scale their impact and make leaps in progress towards a better world.

What makes Google.org’s approach unique is the way we collaborate with our grantees. We bring more than grant funding to the table to accelerate the missions of the organizations we support. Last year, we launched the Google.org Fellowship program which enables Google employees to do full-time pro bono work for up to six months with nonprofits working on technical projects. We’ve done many other kinds of volunteering projects in APAC but in the coming year, I am excited to bring the Fellowship program to APAC for the first time. Six Google.org Fellows will support our past AI Impact Challenge grantee, Wadhwani AI in India to build an AI-based tool to allow smallholder farms in India to better manage pests and reduce cotton crop loss.

We also pride ourselves on being a flexible funder: we’re conscious of not over burdening organizations with unnecessary reporting cycles, and seek to empower them to experiment and pivot their projects to maximize their impact. When COVID-19 hit in February we extended even more support to organizations so that they could adapt their approach to meet the needs of their community during the crisis. It has been inspiring to see how resilient and flexible the nonprofit sector has been.

Googler volunteers came together to translate more than 1,000 digital storybooks across 46 languages for children around the globe.

You mentioned COVID-19. How has the crisis affected the types of projects you support?

When COVID-19 first hit, India, like many countries, went into lockdown. The lockdown left migrant workers without enough money for food, let alone resources to keep their kids learning during the school disruption. This was part of the impetus for our $650k grant to GiveIndia, which supported more than 28,000 low-wage migrant workers’ families with direct cash transfers for resources like food, water, and shelter.

In addition to basic resources, we’ve also been thinking about how we can help keep kids learning and support teachers to develop the digital skills necessary to teach online. I went through a similar experience myself growing up in Serbia. When my country was bombed, I couldn’t go to school — it wasn’t safe. And even at home, it was really hard to concentrate on school while there were sirens sounding. It was one crisis on top of another: war and missed education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a similar situation: we’re seeing the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. To help address this huge need across the region, we made a $1M grant to INCO to launch their education accelerator which helped community-based organizations rapidly adapt their models to support virtual learning during the crisis.

COVID-19 has been a tremendous call to action for people across sectors to do everything they can to help those most in need. We must do more to support underserved and marginalized communities right now.

COVID-19 has been a tremendous call to action for people across sectors to do everything they can to help those most in need.

— Marija Ralic, Google.org Asia Pacific Lead

What’s the hardest part of your job?

One of the hardest parts of the job is working on crises, particularly when they are layered with other crises. Earlier this year, we were responding to the bushfires in Australia which were utterly devastating. And in the midst of that response, COVID-19 hit. It became a balancing act to make sure we were adequately responding to the bushfires while we jumped into action on the pandemic. No two crises are the same. We are constantly learning about the most effective ways to support communities immediately and in the recovery phases. But one thing they all have in common is that they take an emotional toll on everyone involved and being that close to large scale human suffering can be hard to hold.

As you mentioned, you see a lot of suffering in your work. What keeps you motivated?

It is the stories of individual people that have been served through our grantees that keep me motivated. Recently, INCO, the distance learning grantee I mentioned earlier, shared the story of a student, Anisah Fauziyah, in Indonesia who had her education disrupted because of the COVID-19 crisis. Through their accelerator model, INCO was able to work with a local organization, Semua Murid Semua Guru, to help students, parents, and teachers have access to digital learning content and training to keep learning going. It is powerful to hear Anisah talk about how due to the support of Semua Murid Semua Guru she is learning new skills like coding and wants to become a teacher to make her parents proud. Our goal and what motivates me is to provide opportunity to students like Anisah so that they can fully explore and live into their potential.

And when we find things that are working, I get motivated by the opportunity to scale them to more people and places. For example, in Indonesia, we provided grant support to Bebras, to train teachers and students on computational thinking and skills. Based on the success of our initial project together, they were able to partner with the government and Ministry of Education to scale their model across the entire country, the fourth largest education system on the globe.

It is both the individual stories and the scale of the challenges and opportunities in front of us — Google.org, the organizations we support, and the communities we serve — that motivate me every single day.

Marija Ralic has been working in corporate philanthropy in many different capacities since 2010, and currently leads Google.org’s grantmaking across APAC. Previously, Marija spent five years in AIESEC Serbia, a youth-run nonprofit focused on developing the leadership potential of young people through experiential learning, volunteer experiences, and professional internships. Marija is passionate about leveling the playing field for everyone and creating more equitable communities through education.

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