Interview – Jeff Raikes

Alliance magazine

“We still have work to do, but we have been very serious about seeking feedback, and we will continue to be. Ultimately, the field will form its own judgement about our efforts.”

A number of issues emerge clearly from the special feature – about distortion of the fields the Gates Foundation works in; about the power dynamics between Gates and other players, including other foundations; and about accountability. All these arise directly from the size of the Gates Foundation, the scale of its operations, and its style of operation – the 800-pound gorilla in the philanthropy room. Is he aware of these issues, and how can the foundation mitigate some of the dangers, Alliance asked Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Both new and established foundations we’ve spoken to admit they factor Gates priorities into their decision-making. They feel that Gates’ funds so far outstrip their own influence that they should wait to see what Gates funds – or avoid areas of Gates’ interest altogether. Given that you can’t limit how much you give away, how can you limit the risks and distortions that such crowding out and crowding in a foundation this large creates – including a potential loss of diversity of solutions in fields in which Gates operates?

I think it is terrific that other foundations are factoring our priorities into their decision-making. We factor their choices into our own strategies, and the issues we are trying to address with our funding are certainly big enough and difficult enough for many funders and partners to be involved.

I believe the philanthropic sector functions better when we are keenly aware of and clear about our own and others’ passions, interests and capabilities. We learn faster. We combine efforts or go our separate ways sooner because we are more conscious of when it makes sense to do so. Intentional crowding in or crowding out is a good thing for our sector.

Now there is a huge universe of issues we do not work on. And even within the areas where we invest, we are just one of many players. Take the example of US education. We do not work on every education issue. It would be impossible to do it and do it well. We don’t work at the elementary school level. We don’t work on principals, even though schools can’t be successful without a good one. There are enough issues to go around – areas for which funders could make aligned, complementary or entirely distinct contributions. As I noted above, these are big, difficult challenges.

As for whether our entry into certain fields leads to a loss of diversity of solutions, I agree it is a potential risk, and that is one of the reasons why we work hard to explain our choices, strategies and assumptions – because it will often involve admitting that we do not have all the answers and we are not working on all available solutions. But if you consider some of the biggest areas of our funding and engagement – say, agricultural development or malaria – I think it is fair to say that the conversation now is more dynamic than it used to be.

Power dynamics – the unequal power between funders and grantees – have always been a concern in the philanthropic sector. Gates is large enough to have a similar effect even on other large funders and seemingly independent think-tanks. We’ve been surprised by the number of people who aren’t grantees we’ve spoken to who have said, ‘I’m glad you’re looking at the influence of the Gates Foundation, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to contribute.’ If your size alone is enough to silence some criticism and evaluation, how do you make sure that you’re getting anything like the honest feedback necessary for maximum effectiveness?

Getting honest feedback and critical evaluations of our work has always been a problem for private foundations – regardless of size. So I do not think our size is the fundamental challenge.

We have few, if any, comparable metrics to measure our impact. It is also hard for people who depend on you for funding to feel ‘safe’ enough to raise questions, let alone concerns. Finally, even when confronted with unfavourable feedback or disappointing results, that information alone is often not incentive enough for foundations to change approaches or courses. All of this leads me to agree with Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman when they say that in philanthropy, ‘excellence is self-imposed’.

Excellence may be self-imposed, but it can frequently be enabled through honest and open dialogue with others about our successes and shortcomings. Our critics help us get better. Our grantees and partners will be among the first to know if we have lost our way or found a promising path forward. Along these lines, I think we all have a responsibility to speak up and be direct. The mission of the foundation, and that of our grantees and partners, is too important to suffer from lost time or misguided effort.

We have taken some important steps in recent years to address this concern. A few years ago, we created advisory boards for each of our programme areas. I want to ensure these are, and remain characterized by, expertise, candour, vigorous intellectual dialogue, and sensitivity to changing conditions in the fields and geographic areas in which we work. In addition, I’ve made it an established practice for our strategy development processes now to include external advice and feedback. We have just refreshed our agricultural development strategy, and throughout the process we consulted with literally hundreds of people, including small farmers.

Working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy is another key development. We anonymously surveyed all of our grantees in 2009 and have committed to doing this on a regular basis going forward. I think this kind of anonymous feedback can be very useful – both for understanding challenges and for driving change within our institutions. I’d love to find ways to do this even more frequently.

Finally, I have placed a premium on intellectual dialogue at the foundation. If excellence is truly self-imposed, we need to be our own biggest critics. Fortunately, we have hundreds of programme officers here, and very few of them are shrinking violets. But it does take leadership and very intentional work to create the kind of culture of self-criticism and intellectual rigour that I think is critical to excellence in philanthropy.

We still have work to do, but we have been very serious about seeking feedback, and we will continue to be. Ultimately, the field will form its own judgement about our efforts.

While some critics have always complained about the relative lack of oversight and accountability for foundations, no foundation in the modern era has been large enough to generate real public concern. Because of the fame and outspokenness of Bill and Melinda and Warren Buffett, on top of the record-breaking size, the Gates Foundation has entered the public consciousness in a way no foundation has since the heyday of Rockefeller and Carnegie. What steps can you take to reassure the public and government that it need not worry about the lack of accountability of foundations in general and Gates specifically?

First, I think it is always helpful to remind people of the rules by which private foundations in the US are required to operate. We’re subject to an array of rules to ensure basic accountability – from payout mandates and disclosure requirements to self-dealing and lobbying prohibitions. We pay taxes on our investment income to help fund oversight and our annual information returns required by the Internal Revenue Service must list every investment holding and grant made.

Of course, these are minimum standards, and we try to go beyond them: for example, by instituting our advisory boards, engaging external evaluators, publishing detailed information about our strategies on our website, or commissioning grantee perception reports.

Part of the reason for having a robust website or placing a premium on communications is my belief that one of the most important steps for ensuring our own accountability is to be as clear as possible about what we are doing. As long as people understand where our funds are going and why, they will hold us accountable. As you say, philanthropy has entered the public consciousness in new ways. That means it is also open to public scrutiny. One should not take it on faith that critics and honest feedback will automatically emerge – as my previous answer underscores. But in the days of social media, it is easier for ideas to find a voice and travel across continents in seconds. As the Gates Foundation, we have more to do, but I think we’re making progress toward that kind of clarity and transparency in our communications that will be important to ensuring our impact.

For more information
http://www.gatesfoundation.org


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