Gates Foundation calls 2,000 of its closest friends

Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes

Jeff Raikes and other senior leaders at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today engaged in a conference call with 2,000 or so grant recipients in order to improve their ability to communicate.

Raikes said it’s especially difficult to get honest, critical feedback in philanthropy — as compared to business — because of the unique nature of the enterprise. Says Raikes:

There are no “natural” feedback loops built in – if you’re doing something that is not helpful or impactful – your grantee partners are not likely to tell you. It takes a long time to get meaningful data on how we’re doing.

This has been a bit of a chronic problem for the Seattle mega-philanthropy. I wrote about this most recently in a glib (attempt at humor) post last August when the Gates Foundation 2010 annual report  was issued:

Gates Foundation Shrinks Annual Report, Chronic(les) Failure to Communicate

Basically, I was noting that the Gates Foundation is widely viewed by many outsiders, including grant recipients, as somewhat inscrutable. It has been saying for years it wants to improve on its ability to communicate with perhaps little evidence of improvement (and even as its annual report has dramatically shrunk in size, a good thing but symbolically irresistable to me):

It’s also kind of amazing how long the Gates Foundation has been struggling with this problem — of encouraging an open and honest dialogue with those outside the philanthropy. Perhaps the reason this issue has become such a chronic refrain isn’t due to the lack of coming up with some new plan, or timeline or committee-designed set of principles, as it is about developing a new mindset.

Others have said much the same thing, such as “philanthrocapitalists” Matthew Bishop and Michael Green:

The Gates Foundation needs to show that it is ready to participate in the debate with its critics and to demonstrate that it is not just funding yes-men. Given how fearful those who are receiving his money are to be perceived as biting the hand that feeds them, the Gates Foundation probably needs to go out of its way to encourage debate and discover what these folk really say about it in private, to people like us!

And at a recent Gates-sponsored meeting on malaria, I reported that few of the experts gathered wanted to openly share critical comments — especially about a malaria vaccine trial the philanthropy was promoting as a majhor advance — because of Bill and Melinda Gates’ call for “success stories” and “optimism.”

But the Gates Foundation, and to some extent the entire global health community, has a tendency to only want to talk about good news — to be optimistic. It’s understandable, but that also poses a risk. “It’s been a bit like singing ‘Kumbaya‘ around the campfire,” said one top malaria researcher.

It appears the Gates Foundation leadership is taking such criticism to heart. Today’s conference call may be one sign of progress. And at its September staff meeting presided over by Raikes, I learned that the philanthropy’s senior strategist Greg Shaw read from my glib post cited above to the 1,000 or so employees.

The room (I was told, since I wasn’t invited) fell silent as my smart-ass comments echoed through the auditorium. Then Shaw told staff he agreed with me, that the philanthropy still has some work to do opening up to the outside world and that part of its problem has been its mindset.

So we’ll see what next year’s annual report has to say.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Tom for continuing to speak up about this lack of communication and capacity at the Gates Foundation to engage with “dissenters”. Having to wait until the next annual report is… frustrating. My own experience with the Foundation has been that they don’t want to hear any criticism and they don’t want to discuss the possibility that their approach could be misguided. I have explained that in details for the area I closely monitor: grants allocated to promote tobacco control in Africa. To no avail: no lesson has been learned from the very serious mistakes in the management of those grants. This is especially problematic as in July the Foundation supposedly granted $18 million to the Bloomberg Foundation to promote tobacco control with a special focus on Africa. I write supposedly because the grant is now MIA on the Foundation’s site. I asked both foundations about it: 0 answer. Maybe you’ll have more luck?
    Business as usual would mean the millions are given away without any public accountability as it is presently the case with the ongoing grants, including one to the World Health Organization (for $9.9 million) that seems to have achieved very little after two years.
    You can find the details in my small book Honest Feedback, Questions to the Gates Foundation… now also available as an e-book. Yes I did graciously send paper copies to them. In fact the book is dedicated to Jeff Raikes because of his publicly expressed concern about Honest feedback. I never heard from them about it.