February 07, 2008

Google CEO Named Chairman of Washington Think Tank

Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, will become the chairman of the New America Foundation’s Board of Directors on June 1, the group announced. He plans to mark his new role by making an an unrestricted $1-million donation ti the group.

Mr. Schmidt has served on the foundation’s board since its founding in 1999, but he has not been as actively involved in philanthropy as many of his fellow billionaires.

He says he was attracted to the group from the beginning because “they would try to do things that were unconventional. They were like Google, but before Google existed.”

Even when he disagreed with work produced by the scholars and journalist at the foundation, he says, he still found the work worthwhile and provocative.

Mr. Schmidt adds that he plans to work more with nonprofit groups over time, though he declined to say how. “My number one and really only goal is Google,” he says. “If I said anything else that would be major news.”

The $1-million gift is a boon for the relatively small organization, which operates on $13.5-million yearly. Mr. Schmidt will succeed James Fallows, a journalist at The Atlantic, who has been the foundation’s board chairman since the group began in 1999.

Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer, former managing editor of The Washington Post, and two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner, took over as president of New America
in September. He says he had his eye on Mr. Schmidt even before he himself joined the organization and had approached Mr. Schmidt about leading the board very early in his tenure.

“[Mr. Schmidt’s] presence on the board was certainly one of the attractions,” he says. Google has grown immensely since Mr. Schmidt joined the company in 2001, and Mr. Coll says, “He managed their extraordinary success without sacrificing the culture of innovation, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.”

Mr. Coll hopes he can pull that trick at New America, too. In its history, Mr. Coll says the journalists and scholars at the New America Foundation have often emphasized innovation in their writings, but the group itself hasn’t been as innovative in adopting new technologies.

Mr. Coll hopes his group can evolve into “a digital think tank” that incorporates social networking and wikis and relies much less on published print op-eds and magazine stories, and he believes that Mr. Schmidt can help the group make that transition.

Still, Mr. Schmidt made it clear that he sees his role as a supporting one, “to help and not to push.” In his mind, boards and management have complementary but different roles, whether nonprofit or corporate. “The CEO runs the institution, and the board inspects the management.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Schmidt can help the foundation in other ways, Mr. Coll says, especially through widespread contacts in Silicon Valley. “Outside of his leadership,” Mr. Coll says, “I was anxious to enhance New America Foundation’s connections to California and the culture of innovation there.”

If and when Mr. Schmidt does expand his philanthropy work, he says that education and the environment would probably be his major focus. He already serves on Princeton University’s Board of Trustees, and, his company’s philanthropic arm, has promoted a number of environmental projects, including electric cars.

He declined to say much about the current state of philanthropy, calling it “arrogant” for a newcomer to make such pronouncements. But he did say that he saw strengths in “the new style of philanthropy [that] is much more outcome-based.”

In the end, he says his reason for assuming a leadership role at the New America Foundation was simple: “I think this is a pretty neat group, so I’m trying to figure out a way to help them.”