Nonprofits are most proximate to the problem space, have the most experience, and therefore are most proximate to the potential solution space. Listen to them, support their ideas, and let them continue to lead.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Diaz, a Rhodes Scholar and Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree. He is the head of crisis response and humanitarian aid for Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. In his role, Alex manages the company’s response to global crises, providing funding and volunteers to innovative nonprofits on the front lines. Additionally, Alex runs the Google.org Crisis Connectivity Program, which works with nonprofit partners in disaster-affected places to re-establish emergency connectivity for survivors and responders in critical locations. He previously worked as Chief of Staff to the head of Public Policy at YouTube, where he helped develop the company’s policy strategy surrounding hate speech, violent extremism, and disinformation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Alex! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in Union City, New Jersey, a working-class community right across New York City. I was your typical inner-city kid — I loved playing sports, volunteered at (and greatly benefitted from) community programs, and spent as much time playing outside with friends as possible. I was no different from any of my friends growing up, yet the disparities in where I am personally and professionally today compared to them is stark. I knew from a pretty early age — from before I even got accepted into Harvard — that I was one of the lucky ones. I got the right breaks at the right time, and of course, had some incredible parents and mentors help along the way, but this notion of being lucky has never escaped me. I grew up and still live in a society where inequalities run rampant, where systems are geared to make communities like mine walk a tightrope in life, every single step risking a slip and fall into an abyss with an ever-eviscerated social safety net holding on by a thread to protect them. Witnessing these inequalities on a day-to-day basis inspired me to focus my undergraduate studies on the cognitive mechanisms that underlie unconscious race, class and gender bias, and the role these biases play in everyday decision making. My research formed the basis of my receiving the Rhodes Scholarship which was nothing less than a dream come true — walking a tiny step closer to achieving the American Dream that motivated my parents to flee dictator-ravaged countries several decades ago. My passion and desire for wanting to invoke social change and support the most vulnerable has guided me throughout my graduate studies at Oxford as well as my professional career, ultimately leading me to my current role in managing Google’s philanthropic efforts in response to global crises. Long gone should be the days where one’s zip code is the most predictive variable of life outcomes, where kids like me need to be lucky to realize their potential and actualize their dreams.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I joined Google.org to lead our crisis response efforts in May of 2019. I never expected that in under a year part of my portfolio would include helping our team respond to a global pandemic. The needs are vast, but knowing that we could not do it all, we focused our efforts on the areas where we thought we could provide differential value, especially through volunteerism from our greatest asset — our employees. We focused our efforts across health and science, distance learning, and economic relief and recovery. I’m proud of the 100M dollars commitment and 50,000 pro-bono hours Google.org has committed to COVID-19 relief and recovery. We’ve issued grants and deployed Googlers for six months full-time via the Google.org Fellowship program to support leading researchers based out of Harvard/Boston Children’s Hospital’s HealthMap.org, Oxford and Northeastern to scale their open-sourced data efforts making access and sharing of critical public health data more streamlined and useful. In the wake of our national reckoning with racial justice, we’ve also provided funding and sent a team of Googlers to support the Morehouse Satcher Health Leadership Institute to map county-level health equity indicators (e.g. race and socioeconomic status) to inform public health response in the US. The team has also stood up tremendous economic relief programs from support for massive cash transfer programs in the US and abroad, to flexible capital to support minority and women-owned small and medium-sized businesses that are facing the brunt of the economic crisis we are in. The work the entire team has done during the greatest crisis of our lifetime is inspiring.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m a policy guy. Before joining Google.org, I’ve only ever worked in policy settings, and these environments are often hierarchical. When I first joined the team, I was awaiting my marching orders. I was waiting for someone to tell me what to do, what crises to respond to and how. It didn’t take long for me to show up to team meetings and 1:1s to realize this world was different. I’ve been blessed to work on a team that is collaborative and curious, pushing me to refine ideas and develop new skills to be more successful as a budding philanthropist.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
At Google.org, we connect innovative nonprofits with Google’s resources to solve complex human challenges and ensure everyone has access to the digital economy. The same technology that makes our lives easier every day can also help solve some of the world’s largest problems. We know that the best answers often come from those closest to the problem.
Since 2005, we’ve donated over 60 million dollars to more than 50 global humanitarian crises. We have also sent over 50 skilled Googlers to more than a dozen disaster events through our Google.org Crisis Connectivity Program, which works through nonprofit partners to help re-establish connectivity globally post-disaster for survivors and responders. Google.org works to show up for more complex crises too. For example, Google.org is partnering with the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Indian Red Cross Society, in collaboration with Google’s Flood Forecasting Initiative, to pilot the delivery of flood alerts to offline populations in northern India.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Google’s Wildfire Boundary Maps that surface in Search and Maps, which was developed by our Crisis Response and Geo Teams in partnership with local and state officials. As the devastating wildfire season continues to rage, this map helps people find and use critical emergency information when they need it most. Our recently launched Wildfire Mapping tool provides deeper insights for those in areas impacted by an ongoing wildfire.
When crises happen, reacting quickly, effectively, and collaboratively is the only way to help as many people as possible. We’re incredibly proud of the work we’ve done, but we’re looking forward to doing more and extending our reach, especially in support of the most vulnerable.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are two stories that immediately come to mind — one pre-COVID and one during COVID.
Pre-COVID, I often think about the folks our Google.org Crisis Connectivity volunteers served in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. Here were people who had just lost everything, yet somehow they were hanging onto hope that tomorrow would bring better days, a hope that wasn’t foreign to me and people I grew up with, thinking back to days in my childhood where it was all many had to keep them going. Our team members spent 80 days in the field, helping to bring back Internet connectivity in dozens of locations such as shelters, medical clinics, schools and police stations. Residents were relieved to be able to access critical information, connect with family members and simply de-stress by going online.
The other story that comes to mind is the awesome work that Team Rubicon, a Google.org grantee and majority veteran-led organization, has been able to stand up in response to COVID-19 with our support. Last year, we made a grant to Team Rubicon to help scale their resilient cities program — an effort to leverage the skillsets many former veterans and skilled volunteers have for good in their home communities, building a trained and decentralized network of people who can engage in disaster mitigation or response activities. Since March 2020, the resilient cities program has deployed thousands of trained volunteers, across hundreds of operations across the country in support of overburdened direct-service organizations like hospitals and emergency operations centers. After COVID hit, Team Rubicon also realized that the elderly, who are more susceptible to severe complications with COVID, also tended to serve a critical role in organizations like food banks. These same volunteers were able to step up and fill the void — to date serving over 1.85 million meals to families and individuals experiencing food insecurity, including 1,100 emergency food drop-offs for immunocompromised individuals with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- We should be judged on the basis of how we serve the most vulnerable among us. Focus main efforts on advancing the welfare and safety net of these populations. It is important to take into account intersectionalities of important demographics like gender, sexuality and race when assessing vulnerability and make proactive efforts to mitigate bias, especially at the structural and institutional level.
- Do as much as possible to improve the state of disaster preparedness and mitigation. Climate change is accelerating, and while (improved) response will always be needed, we need to do significantly more as a society, potentially with the help of technology, to supercharge preparedness and mitigation efforts.
- To the policymakers: have a coordinated effort to scale what works. Philanthropy is only as good as the innovative pilot interventions/approaches it is able to shine a light on and build evidence for, but impact and implementation should be led by policy stakeholders who are positioned to better serve the public and have the resources to do so at scale.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
When one thinks of leadership, one might think of the stereotypical strongman. I think the myth of a “strong” leader needs to be debunked. It’s dangerous, and simply untrue if we’re looking to describe the most effective and beloved leaders. There are so many ways to be a leader, and leadership and followership are very intimately intertwined. One quality I think essential in leadership is active listening. I recently came across the Chinese word “Ting” which captures the essence of engaging in active listening. When one listens with “Ting” one is said to be listening with one’s heart, mind, ears, and eyes.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Nonprofits are most proximate to the problem space, have the most experience, and therefore are most proximate to the potential solution space. Listen to them, support their ideas, and let them continue to lead.
- No amount of philanthropic capital is going to “solve” problems. These issues are thorny and have been entrenched for decades, if not longer. Seek innovations that move systems, policies and the sector one step forward.
- With limited resources, you cannot do everything. Focus on where you’d have differential value-add and serve as a catalyst for broader investment or innovation.
- Get to know everyone on all the core teams you work with in the first months on the job. Nothing can be accomplished without a well-oiled team machine moving things forward. Set up casual coffee chats or lunch dates!
- For the virtual world, learn all the ins and outs of all the various video conferencing software.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have been the recipient of many ordinary people in my community doing extraordinary things to support me. Because of this, I am someone who is profoundly committed to the community. I have the responsibility to pay it forward. If I were to inspire a movement, it would be one that inspired others to be as invested in the success and servicing of the members of their community as if they were family. If we successfully did that, if we were able to motivate society to treat each other as they would like to be treated with love and kindness, other values I hold dear such as fair equality of opportunity and equal justice under the law would be much easier to achieve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. This has been true at every stage of my life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
It’s hard to choose just one, so I’m going to have to say Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. They are some of my favorite rappers whose words have done so much to get me through both highs and lows. Seriously, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly helped me wrangle with so many complex emotions like survivor’s guilt.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m actually not on Twitter but you can follow Google.org at @Googleorg!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!