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A chat with outgoing chief of the Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s biggest philanthropy, but big doesn’t by itself translate into best.

Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes and Bill Gates in Nigeria with health worker on polio campaign
Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes and Bill Gates in Nigeria with health worker on polio campaign
Gates Foundation

Making the Gates Foundation better has been Jeff Raikes’ job for the last five years or so. He has presided over dramatic growth – from a few hundred employees to now more than 1200 – and a significant reorganization internally. Raikes, a former top exec at Microsoft, announced he will be stepping down soon so Humanosphere interviewed him to get his take on the current state of the Gates Foundation.

Q What’s the biggest difference between helping run a company and helping run a philanthropy?

JR: There are some similarities but when you’re running a philanthropy you have a different set of metrics or goals or priorities. I’m somewhat stating the obvious but that’s a very important part of how you think about your leadership and how you structure the organization. At the same time, you need good people, good financial systems and a clear strategy. So as CEO there are some common features.

Q The Gates Foundation has changed a lot in the last five years. Bill Gates said the foundation is in the best shape it’s ever been thanks to you. Can you give me your perspective on the changes?

JR: If you go back to 2005, three years before I started, the foundation was much smaller with about 200 people, less than $1 billion dollars in annual payout. Today, there are more than 1200 employees, we have roughly $4 billion a year in payout and our work is much broader.

The bottom line is the foundation has gone through tremendous growth in the last 5 to 8 years. A big part of my responsibility to Bill and Melinda and to all the employees at the foundation was to lead us through that growth and put in place the kind of systems and support that was necessary to handle it. We needed to do it in way that drove towards the programmatic impact we are all about – like getting us closer to polio eradication, helping improve US education and better focusing our agricultural (reform) strategy.

Q What would you say was your biggest success during your time as CEO of the foundation? Biggest frustration?

Well it’s difficult to pick out one thing but I’d say the progress we’ve made on polio eradication, in partnership with others, has been fantastic. I think it’s fair to say the Gates Foundation has been a key leader and without that I think the world would’ve stagnated on that goal. I’m particularly proud of the leadership team and how the new leadership team works together. That’s a high priority for any CEO.

Q The Gates Foundation is often criticized for dominating the agenda on any issue it gets involved in. You get criticized for imposing your strategies on others, simply because your size overwhelms other voices or perspectives. Thoughts on that complaint?

JR: Because of our size there’s always a lot attention to our voice and views. But in everything we do there’s a rich set of voices. In global health, there are a lot of different views, a lot of different investments. What I think distinguishes the Gates foundation besides our size is our focus on trying to make decisions based on data and evidence. If we’re using our voice based on data and evidence we are more likely to be effective.There will always be different views. We want to focus on those view backed up by metrics.

Q The Gates Foundation re-organization. It involved some big changes but hasn’t gotten that much attention. For one thing, the missions of the global health and the development programs were changed dramatically – narrowing the scope of global health to focus on product development while expanding the development program to incorporate some elements of health. Why the change?

JR: The re-structuring of the organization was done over a year ago mostly because of Trevor Mundel (a former Novartis exec who now heads global health) and Chris Elias (former president at PATH, now head of development) coming on board. That was an important move for the foundation. It was an opportunity for us to drive a closer working relationship between the global health and global development activities.

One way to explain this is by anecdote. In December 2010, I was down south in Ethiopia in a primary health care center. The obvious health interventions offered at the clinic were posted on the wall. Some were the obvious ones like child immunization and support for HIV. But they also posted about personal and environmental hygiene, about water and sanitation and nutrition. They even had a model garden outside. I realized at that moment how important it was for us to reorganize in a way that pulled all of our programs together to support families (as opposed to isolated interventions). That was the driving force behind the reorganization.

Q How’s the relationship with your grantees? Last time we talked, you expressed concern that the foundation’s relationship with many grantees was still not good enough – lack of clear communication and transparency. What’s the latest verdict?

JR: I think we’re getting better but it’s still a work in progress. We need to provide greater clarity to our grantees and partners in terms of sharing our strategy and decision-making process. We’re doing that more but I still think we can do that even better.

Q As a journalist, I think the Gates Foundation is still not very transparent and not really that willing to include outsiders or the public in its internal dialogue. You guys just mostly make announcements once the ‘message’ has been crafted. But that’s my perspective. How would you say the foundation is doing on transparency and openness?

JR: I think transparency is very important. I think we’ve improved a lot on how we share information. For example, we set up our website so people can have access to our strategies, priorities and grants. But yes, the key is to improve the two-way dialogue. That’s something we continue to prioritize.

Q What’s in the future for the Gates Foundation?

JR: One of the things I feel great about is the new CEO will inherit an excellent organization with strong leadership and clear strategy. It will give the new CEO an opportunity to really focus on our key programmatic priorities. I think, within the next few years, we will succeed in eradicating polio. That will free up a lot of resources over time for other health interventions and, most importantly, show the world what’s possible when we work together to really make a difference. I also think we’re going to see tremendous improvement in education and a move away from an overuse of standardized testing. We need to help teachers really be the best they can be, which is what they aspire to…. I think we’re turning the corner on that. It’s exciting.

Q I noticed in another news report about you stepping down this video of you playing a superhero at a staff meeting at Microsoft many years ago. Once you leave the foundation, will you revive the role of Data Man?

JR: You’ve been watching too many YouTube videos.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.