Gates Foundation does poor job communicating with outside world

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does many extraordinary things well, but public transparency and communicating with outsiders are not among them.

That’s what the world’s biggest philanthropy itself has discovered after repeating a survey of its grant recipients and other partners, which includes many, if not most, major organization working on aid and development.

The Gates Foundation certainly does plenty of externally oriented communication, with a constant torrent of social media and scores of staffers devoted to working with (or sometimes paying for) media. Many say it’s frequently a one-way bullhorn with little dialogue, or opportunity to engage in a critical or questioning conversation. Still, to its credit, the Gates Foundation is at least getting more transparent about its poor job of being transparent.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Susan Desmond-Hellmann

“We should not be happy with the results of this survey,” said Susan Desmond-Hellmann, who recently took over as CEO of the Gates Foundation.

On the philanthropy’s website, Desmond-Hellmann has posted her response to the findings and promised to improve in these problem areas. “I am committed to improving our performance. After all, our relationship with grantees and partners is the lifeblood of our foundation.”

Sounds good. But this is not at a new challenge for the new CEO; it’s been a chronic problem for the mega-philanthropy.

As Humanosphere has noted over the years, such as here in 2011 and more recently in a 2013 exit interview with then-outgoing CEO Jeff Raikes, people have been complaining for many years that the Gates Foundation can be so inscrutable that even grant recipients or those working closely with the philanthropy remain in the dark as to overall strategies and mission goals.

“The lowest favorable ratings were related to communication and included transparency of foundation processes; staff engagement levels; decision making; and contribution to, and understanding of, foundation strategy,” the Grantee and Partner Survey report states at the outset.

The survey, which was conducted in 2013 by an independent and outside firm, did find some positives: Participants reported high marks for the Gates Foundation when it came to treating partners with respect and in resolving problems. A majority said they found it easier to work in collaboration at defining projects, or adapting them, and that many processes have become simpler.

But the problems identified in the survey appear more fundamental, with key ‘opportunities for improvement’ targeting a mutual lack of understanding between partners and the foundation when it came to their operational strategies, the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s high staff turnover (whether it is transfer to a new job internally, or because someone has left the foundation) and, as stated above, poor communications and strategy.

David Shoultz

David Shoultz

David Shoultz is the Gates Foundation point person who, as director of  grantee and partner engagement, is supposed to fix this this sorry state of affairs. Prior to taking on this task in January 2013, Shoultz worked in the philanthropy’s global health program on access agreements and licensing issues. Before that, he worked on drug development issues at PATH.

Humanosphere asked Shoultz to answer a few questions about this survey and the entrenched communications/transparency problems that have for so many years been afflicting the Gates Foundation. He was very gracious, thoughtful and, dare I say it, open and transparent. Below are some excerpts from our conversation:

Q Why do these problems persist despite all the effort and attention by management?

DS There are likely a number of reasons why this is the case. These include the scale and pace of our work, our growth as an organization, and a need for us to invest more in learning and development programs for those who work directly with our grantees and other partners. I’m especially enthusiastic about our new learning and development programs for those who work directly with our grantees and other partners. These were introduced this summer and I believe that they are going to be make a real and observable difference over the next few years.

Q How can the Gates Foundation be rated high for ‘quality interactions’ yet score poorly for communication overall?

DS “Quality interactions” include being treated with respect, comfort approaching the foundation when a problem arises, engaging in candid dialogue, and the responsiveness of foundation staff.

The questions about “communication” asked about other domains of our relationships, including transparency of foundation processes, decision-making, and the grantee’s contributions to the foundation’s strategies. Because these questions are quite specific and are designed to understand important nuances in our relationship with grantees and other partners, it is possible for respondents to share differing perspectives depending on which relationship domain we are asking about. This specificity allows to target our improvement efforts more effectively.

Q Is it really necessary that the Gates Foundation understand an outside organization’s strategy to the point the organization desires? My wife tells me I don’t understand her, which is often true, but we do okay anyway.

DS As in any healthy marriage, I’m convinced that mutual understanding is key for healthy and productive partnerships. It’s our responsibility to ensure that we understand the mission and goals of grantees and other partner organizations (and they ours), AND it’s the responsibility of our grantees and other partners to ensure that they understand our mission and goals (and we theirs). We’re in this together. It requires time, discipline, and making mutual understanding of our strategies and organizational imperatives a priority. However, achieving this mutual understanding creates a platform for deeper impact, helps to avoid issues arising at critical junctures within projects, and creates opportunities for real efficiency of effort.

Q Your scores on ‘collaboration’ are confusing to me. The report says in one category of collaboration, the ratings were high. Yet the report also, in a different section, says some of the worst scores were for collaboration. Can you explain?

DS While we do present the responses for each survey question in separate charts, we have used a Collaboration Index for years to provide a meaningful summary view into how respondents experience collaborating with us across the different domains represented by each of the five questions.

In general, just 61% of our grantees rated the Gates Foundation as ‘favorable’ with respect to collaboration according to the five-item index that we used to assess collaboration. Likewise, just over 70% of respondents told us that they did not experience an improvement in the quality of collaboration over the past year. However, those who did experience an improvement in the quality of collaboration also responded more favorably to the answers in the five-item collaboration index. We are seeing improvements among some grantees and other partners; in interviews, these grantees and other partners tell us that they notice and that their projects are benefitting from the efforts that we are making in this area. One domain where we are making some progress is in the particular area of collaborating around defining and adjusting grant outcomes over time. We’ve focused effort on this over the past year and are glad to be seeing results.

Q What is meant by complexity and how have you guys improved on that score?

DS  As in many growing organizations taking on important challenges, complexity shows up in a lot of places at the Gates Foundation. For instance, how we make decisions, how we’re organized, and how we structure and approve grants. It’s not only our grantees and other partners who experience this complexity; employees also experience it.

Because we’ve taken on complex and important challenges, our programmatic work is never going to be simple. However, we’ve got to ensure that we’re reducing the complexity as much as we can so that it’s no more than necessary to successfully take on critical challenges such as eradicating polio worldwide, dramatically expanding access to digitally-based financial tools and services, or creating opportunities for all children in Washington State to thrive in stable families, great schools, and strong communities. One of the great gains that we made over the past year is clarifying and simplifying the process that we use to make grants and other investments. These gains are already showing up in our 2014 grantee and partner survey results among those respondents using the new process. It’s another reminder of how much progress we can make in a relatively short period of time. A hallmark of this work was proactive engagement with grantees and partners early on and throughout the clarification and simplification of this critical business process.

Q  What is the Gates Foundation doing to get better grades?

DS We are: 1) Continuing to work on clarifying and simplifying the process that we use to make grants and other investments. Significant process changes like this one require sustained effort and attention over many years to be successful. 2) Introducing our new learning and development programs for those who work directly with our grantees and other partners. 3) Using our ‘rapid feedback’ process (introduced earlier this year) to provide more regular and actionable feedback to program officers at the foundation.

I also have to emphasize how focused our CEO and Executive Leadership Team are as it relates to building on our strengths and addressing our areas of weakness. As Sue Desmond-Hellmann said in her July 21, 2014 note on this topic, “You have my personal commitment that this is a focus for me and my colleagues…I’m committed to taking effective and sustained action to get us to where we need to be, and building the productive collaborations that we know are necessary to advance our shared missions.”

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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.