Bloomberg News

Google Do-Gooder Discount Leaves Churches to Beg: Stephen Carter

September 14, 2011

Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- I am not sure what exactly led Google Inc. to decide to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible by making it harder for religious groups to do their work. But that is the practical effect of a set of changes in pricing policies adopted by the tech giant this year.

Until recently, Google offered discounts on many of its paid services to nonprofit organizations, including churches. This past spring, with little fanfare, the company changed its policy. It created a new suite of applications, known as Google for Nonprofits, that includes significant discounts and advantages for a range of Google products such as grants for advertising on AdWords, free licenses for Google Earth Pro and the option to raise funds through a “donate” button at Google Checkout.

Google also added a remarkable list of restrictions for eligible charitable groups and institutions. Among those not able to apply for the program are websites where people donate cars to charity; child care centers, unless the “entire” purpose is to serve a disadvantaged community; hospitals; websites “that result in a poor experience for the viewer”; and -- most troublesome -- “places or institutions of worship (e.g., churches, ministries, temples, synagogues).”

This last restriction caught religious groups by surprise - -and, according to an article in Christianity Today, which first reported the story, many have cut back on services in response to the unexpected price increases on Google’s applications. Another program, the cloud computing service Google App Engine, recently beset with controversy because of price increases, may also soon see discounts for non-profits -- with similar restrictions, one assumes.)

The evangelist (and Watergate veteran) Charles Colson has labeled Google’s action as “corporate cowardice.” That is clearly over the top -- the only entity that I can imagine Google might fear is Facebook -- but I do believe the new policy is a serious mistake. I am a great fan of Google and its products, and, like most everyone these days, I rely on its search engine. But Google for Nonprofits is poorly conceived.

The premise of the policy seems to be that there are two kinds of nonprofits in the world -- the good ones and the bad ones -- and Google wants to support only the good ones, in sync with its do-no-evil corporate philosophy. Well, Google is a private company and, within broad limits, is free to deal with whom it chooses, on whatever terms it likes.

Many corporations exclude religious groups from their charitable-giving programs. But there is a vast difference between a company’s considered decision on where to spend its cash in pursuing the social good, and its rules on the prices it charges different customers. It is unusual indeed for a company that discounts products and services to nonprofits to exclude religious organizations.

One might respond to Google’s restrictions by citing the significant philosophical, historical and psychological work on why and how religions are different from other entities -- and why they need to be. But we need not reach for the esoteric. There are strong secular reasons for Google to change its policy.

For starters, the new rules ignore the enormous charitable services provided by religious organizations. Without discounts, many religious groups would have difficulty undertaking serious charitable work at all.

My church, for example, runs a much-needed lunch program for poor women and their children. No similar service exists in the neighborhood. The program relies almost entirely on donated or discounted food from restaurants and stores. Were these for- profit companies suddenly to decide that churches were not eligible for their largesse, the lunch program would almost certainly be shut down.

The program is not unusual. In many parts of the U.S. -- and in many suffering corners of the world -- the charitable work done by religious groups is pretty much all the charitable work that is done. During the worst of the attacks on Darfur, for example, it has generally been religious groups rather than the secular nongovernmental organizations who have stuck it out.

Religious charities, moreover, tend to be more efficient than secular nonprofits, with lower costs for administration and a larger portion of the money they raise going directly to services.

Other large corporations that restrict giving to religious groups recognize the difference among religious activities. For example, the Walmart Foundation’s national giving program excludes “Faith-based organizations when the proposed grant will only benefit the organization or its members” -- leaving room, say, for a soup kitchen.

To be sure, Google for Nonprofits has its defenders. Erwin De Leon, blogging at Nonprofit Quarterly, asked: “Aren’t churches the first ones to exclude those who disagree or challenge their beliefs and those with lifestyles they judge sinful?”

Certainly, religious groups tend to limit their ranks to those who support their mission, but it is difficult to imagine what nonprofit would do otherwise. And few religious charities make distinctions among those they serve.

Besides, if one genuinely wants to help secular nonprofit groups, one way to do so might be to give to religions. How so? According to research compiled by the social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, people who regularly attend religious services are more than twice as likely to volunteer for entirely secular causes than those who do not attend church. They are also significantly more likely than the nonreligious to give money to secular organizations, and the amounts they give are larger.

Like most large corporations, Google already subsidizes the nonprofits it likes in the old-fashioned way, with millions of dollars in direct donations. This is all to the good. But with respect to the pricing of Google’s products, there is no compelling reason not to give religious organizations the same treatment accorded other nonprofits.

Google for Nonprofits is a fine idea, but one has the sense that the new program was poorly vetted. Google says it is taking a second look at its eligibility guidelines. Let’s hope that version 2.0 gets rid of the bugs.

(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Stacey Shick

Click on “Send Comment” in sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the writer of this column: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.


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