Point of clarification on 5 key points from Gates Foundation 2012 report

Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation release its annual report and I did a quick analysis of it, which I dubbed the Top Five Points. I selected five things from the annual report which caught my attention, one of which made some folks at the philanthropy unhappy.

That was point 3:

There’s nothing in this annual letter (or in Raikes’ new blog post) following up on what has been a chronic complaint about the Gates Foundation — it’s lack of transparency and relatively poor communication skills with grant recipients and outsiders. Last year, Raikes addressed this complaint head-on and said they intended to improve. Does anybody know what happened? Did I miss something?

Well, I did miss something. My words are factually correct — in that this chronic problem was not mentioned in the annual report. But I did, in fact, neglect to mention a number of efforts underway by the Seattle philanthropy to improve its communications with grant recipients and the outside community. I neglected them because I didn’t know about them.

Chris Williams, global press secretary for the Gates Foundation, sent me a link to their progress report on improving their relationship with grant recipients. It was issued last month and posted on the philanthropy’s website. Here’s a (low-rez) graphic from the report showing the response grant recipients gave to some of the philanthropy’s set of questions:

This is all to be commended and so I stand corrected, on the implication at least, of Point 3.

Clearly, the Gates Foundation is making an effort to improve its communications with grantees. To be fair, it’s not easy given their size and scope. The philanthropy has grown substantially in the last few years, more than doubling in staff size, complicating both internal and external communications (not to mention programs and strategies).

But I have to add that all of this, however commendable, is not equivalent to being publicly accountable and transparent. They may be working hard to improve their dialogue with the people and organizations they fund (a perhaps captive and beholden audience), but what about with the general public — not to mention the critics? Last week, I also noted that the Gates Foundation, like many US aid agencies or organizations, doesn’t score that well when it comes to transparency.

Based on what I hear with my ear to the humanitarian ground (which may explain the dirt on the side of my face), I’d say it’s fair to say they still have their work cut out in this arena.

Thanks to Chris and Melissa Milburn for the clarification.

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Editor 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, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philippe-Boucher/585203593 Philippe Boucher

    Considering their resources there is no reason why each grantee could/should not communicate about what they are doing with their grant. How much would a grant-blogger cost? A very limited fraction of any grant. The real problem -as you point it out- is that there is no real will to implement a transparent behavior, nor to deal publicly with eventual critics despite the continued protest to the contrary about really wanting “honest feedback”. The more they wait, the more they develop a culture of being “embattled” instead of creating a dense network of bloggers who would provide information about what’s happening. Having Jeff Raikes publish a post once every 6 weeks is not going to do the trick. Could it be they don’t get it? My impression is they are already stuck in a very ossified and defensive stand that will take some drastic changes to shake.