Bill and Melinda Gates and their philanthropic partner Warren Buffet have been in the news a lot lately following the announcement of their ambitious $600 billion giving pledge, an open challenge to the nation’s billionaires to commit to giving away half of their fortunes to charity.
However, there’s been other recent news regarding The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that you may not have heard. As I read today in this post on the Philanthrocapitalism blog, a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perceptions Report found that the foundation is facing communications challenges with its grantees.
The report is based on a survey of 1,544 of Gates’ grantees. On the positive side of the ledger, it found that the foundation is perceived by grantees as having a profound positive impact on work in the grantees’ fields, particularly in the areas of knowledge building, public policy and creating effective practices.
However, the assessment of the Gates Foundation’s communications was not so rosey. Grantee partners reported that the organization’s goals and strategies are unclear, and that similarly they felt that the foundation had a poor understanding of their goals and strategies. Respondents also noted confusion about the foundation’s decision-making and grantmaking processes and expressed frustration over program officer turnover.
As you may know, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a member of MCF. So you may be wondering why we would report on one of our members performing poorly at, well, anything. The truth is, although the report found that the Gates Foundation has a need for improvement, its transparency about those challenges is admirable and should serve as a model for those grantmakers that value transparency and accountability in their work, both key tenets of MCF’s own Principles for Minnesota Grantmakers.
The Gates Foundation has been very open about its involvement in the assessment process and the results, posting the findings here on its website, along with the audio from a number of grantee community calls. The foundation also has been clear that it will be addressing these shortcomings by reevaluating its communications and creating new strategies for enhancing cohesion and clarity between program managers and executives at the foundation and its grantee partners.
That’s why I salute the Gates Foundation for being upfront about the challenges that it faces. It’s through this process that the organization will be able to enhance its relationships with grantees, and ultimately the impact of its grant giving.
As physicist Tom Hirshfield once wrote, “If you hit every time, the target is either too big or too near.” Philanthropy is a bold endeavor with high stakes. By learning from our collective mistakes through accountable and transparent practices, we can capitalize not only on success, but failure too, and ameliorate the world-changing work that we all share, while at the same time affirming the public trust.
- Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate