At the Gates Foundation, the first three months of every year is the ‘strategy review’ season. We have almost 30 different strategic teams working across our Global Health, Global Development, Global Policy and Advocacy/Communications and US Programs. During these busy months, each of these teams presents their work to Bill and Melinda and our foundation leadership team.
We’ve just finished the 2013 review season and I want to reflect a bit about what strategy means to us at the foundation and how this process drives our work forward to create a positive impact in the populations we target for improved health, development and education.
One of our core beliefs is that all lives have equal value. As part of this, our broad focus is on investing in human promise. Our strategies create opportunities for people to live healthier and more productive lives with greater access to medicines, food and high-quality education.
When each team at the foundation holds its strategy review, they update leadership on the progress made towards expected results, align on priorities for the upcoming year, and discuss how to resolve obstacles to execution.
The aim is to ensure each team has its goals for the next twelve months clearly laid out and that the co-chairs and top management are aware and have talked though any significant hurdles or new approaches to the strategy. The strategy of each team guides the investments it will make.
The strategy review process is not easy and requires discipline to do it on an annual basis. We invest time to look at what’s working well and what can be improved for the coming year.
As in years past, this strategy review season featured teams that are in various stages of executing an existing strategy, making revisions and improvements, or completing the development of an entirely new strategy.
For example, the Family Homelessness team, which focuses on supporting local initiatives in the Pacific Northwest, has been making good progress against its well-established goal to reduce homelessness. I met with the team and was amazed by the hard work and progress they’ve shown this past year – greatly improving a challenging grantee initiative and orchestrating a major convening of partners. There is plenty still to do, but the clear message from me as CEO was: ‘Don’t let up and to continue making big strides.’
Our Financial Services for the Poor (FSP) team, part of the Global Development Program, had completed a major overhaul of its strategy a little over a year ago and is now focused on a smaller, more targeted group of countries where technological innovations in financial tools can help combat poverty. This year, the co-chairs spent a good deal of time asking tough questions about how this new strategy is working in an effort to make sure things are off to a good start with the revised approach. They prodded the team to be bolder and focus on key issues around technology, market disruption and user adoption – especially by women who are often excluded from the formal financial sector in developing countries. The FSP team has done remarkable work to advance the adoption of digital financial services (such as mobile payments) by low-income users in a challenging, highly regulated area, and the increased focus on specific geographies is paying off.
One final example involves our emerging regional offices. The foundation’s headquarters and the bulk of our employees will always be based in Seattle, but we have small offices in China and in India (and we are also building a presence in Africa) that are focused on making our work in those large countries – and our partnerships with governments, non-profits and manufacturers of affordable, quality products – as impactful as possible.
For our China and our India offices (and in the future, for our Africa presence), the strategy review meetings were a chance for them to get full approval from me and from the co-chairs about their new strategies and also get approval for the core budget for 2013. Both of these meetings went exceedingly well and I’m pleased that the China and India office strategies are moving forward rapidly.
The strategy review process is not easy and requires discipline to do it on an annual basis. We invest time to look at what’s working well and what can be improved for the coming year. Melinda recently commented on how valuable the strategy review process is in enabling us to step back each year, take stock of the exciting progress on our priority areas, and have an honest discussion about where we’re making breakthroughs and where we’re hitting roadblocks, which is key to the foundation’s learning and continuous improvement. I could not agree more.
I applaud the efforts of everyone involved at the foundation and am excited by what I’ve seen. 2013 is going to be our best year yet as a foundation as we continue to expand our work and build partnerships geared toward improving the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Jeff Raikes is chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation