Don't be evil? Yes, but how?

July 17, 2012: 12:24 PM ET

Powerful companies like Google and LinkedIn agree: firms should try to work for the greater good. Question is, how?

By Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor

FORTUNE -- In an engaging session Tuesday morning, key members of the tech world turned their attention to the social obligation of tech companies and the opportunity -- and obligation -- to harness the industry's successes and its massive might for the greater good. The standing room only panel discussed ideas that worked, ones that didn't, what progress has been made and what still needs to be done. The consensus: Much has been done, but there's still an enormous opportunity.

The big-company panelists, whose firms have largely led the charge to give back, discussed the things they're already doing. Hunter Walk, director of product development for YouTube (GOOG), noted that people spend more time watching education video on YouTube than all the students in the Ivy League spent in classrooms last year. "Our goal is to not forced feed people vegetables but to invest in the farms and gardens," he said.

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Meg Garlinghouse, head of social impact for LinkedIn (LNKD), said it's critical for companies' social strategies to align with their core business strategies. "I think corporations shouldn't do anything just for charity," she said. "It should be linked to the company's core mission." She cited examples of LinkedIn's social strategy that did just that—helping in nonprofit board matching and in finding talent for skilled volunteerism, both of which are also core to LinkedIn's business.

Caroline Barlerin, director of social innovation for HP (HPQ), offered up strong examples of the might Big Tech can bring when it comes to social good. She cited HP's work helping identify counterfeit drugs, which, she acknowledged, may seem like an odd link for a printing company, but HP has been able to share its strong expertise in supply chains—and has helped reduce the 7,000 people who die every year because of counterfeit drugs. That effort in turn, she says, has brought the company to the table with various ministries of health who are now asking for HP's contributions in other ways. HP also gives each employee four hours of paid time a month for volunteer work, which, with its fulltime workforce of 350,000 people, has the equivalent effect of 7,700 fulltime people doing good.

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While big companies seem to be more proactive, everyone in the room agreed there's a disconnect among startups and the recognition of the need to give back. Part of that is likely due to time; Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni, recalled his startup days when he slept under his desk and thought all his employees should be sleeping under their desks. (The always colorful Bonforte also quipped that he's done his part giving back unwittingly: "I've failed a lot of startups," he said. "And that's a form of good, giving money back to the ecosystem.") He spoke of being struck by the culture of doing good that pervaded Yahoo when he joined the web giant after many years of starting his own companies. "The company behaved so consciously good I couldn't believe it," he said.

Shervin Pishevar, managing director of Menlo Ventures, agrees it's critical to help companies "from the zero stage," and talked about his new venture designed to encourage startups do just that. His 1% of Nothing helps encourage early-stage corporate philanthropy among startups by connecting startups to causes and getting them to pledge one percent of their equity to the cause. So far, more than 100 startups have signed on. "The idea is to make it part of the culture at the ground level," Pishevar said. "Then you don't have to think about it again." Bonforte said he felt there was a strong need for a third-party company that could come in and enact projects for startups too busy on building their companies but that have a desire to do good. "I would pay for someone to organize good," he says.

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Walk, too, agreed of the need for more social good at the startup level, noting how so much of tech philanthropy tends to occur at "the end of the rainbow." But whether at the beginning or end of the profit-building, he said the important thing is people are starting to think about social responsibility more. "We're all sitting at a relatively privileged place in the economy: technology," he said. "People are making substantial amounts of money earlier in their career. It's good to see they're not just taking that and spending the next 40 years sitting down."

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