• July 25, 2014

Gates Foundation Pledges to Improve Communications With Grantees

In a letter to grantees today, Jeffrey S. Raikes, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, acknowledged that many of the charities the fund supports believe the foundation is unclear about its goals and how it makes decisions and that it is often unresponsive.

Mr. Raikes laid out a plan to improve the foundation’s relationship with nonprofit groups that includes more-frequent calls between program officers and grantees and conference calls with foundation executives.

To make his point about communicating more clearly, Mr. Raikes announced the proposals to grantees during two conference calls on Tuesday.

Ranking Below Other Foundations

The unusually blunt letter from Mr. Raikes comes in response to findings from a survey of the foundation’s grantees conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in Cambridge, Mass. The research group produces reports for foundations based on surveys of grantees. It polled more than 1,000 of Gates’s grantees for the report on the Seattle fund and, as is its practice, did not identify any of the grantees to the foundation, with the goal of promoting more candor.

The report shows that Gates’s grantees believe the foundation is making a big difference in global health, education, and other areas it supports, according to Mr. Raikes. But in most other areas, Gates ranked below the typical foundation, he said.

Many organizations said the foundation didn’t understand its grantees’ goals and strategies, Mr. Raikes said. Charities also complained about turnover at the foundation, which they said creates more work for them.

“We take this feedback very seriously, because we understand that some of these barriers are preventing our partners and us from having our maximum impact,” said Mr. Raikes, who has led the foundation since the fall of 2008.

Steps for Improvement

He pledged that, by 2013, grantees and the foundation would have stronger relationships characterized by two-way communication and a better understanding of each other's goals and processes.

Mr. Raikes identified five steps the foundation would take immediately to improve its relationships with grantees. He also said the foundation will be drafting a longer-term plan for strengthening its work with grantees. The short-term steps are:

  • Better explain the foundation’s process for proposing and approving grants.
  • Clearly communicate to grantees which staff member is their primary contact.
  • Provide an orientation to all new grantees, set expectations for them, and learn about their concerns.
  • Provide timely and meaningful responses to grantees’ progress reports.
  • Use new ways to communicate with grantees.

“We don’t see this process as a popularity contest,” Mr. Raikes said. “Even in the most productive partnerships, there is bound to be some tension. But we are absolutely committed to building relationships that will help us do our best work.”

The foundation plans to make available on its Web site recordings of the phone calls Mr. Raikes held with grantees.

Comments

1. worldlyjohn - June 16, 2010 at 09:53 am

I think this is a wonderful move by Jeff Raikes and the Gates Foundation. I had the pleasure of working under Jeff (and Steve Sinofsky) while at Microsoft working on the Office product suite.

Improved two-way communication is necessary both internally and externally. Internally, staff time can be saved if a field person could enter their qualitative and quantitative metrics in one place and have that disseminated to all the grantors that support them. Externally, work is often duplicated and projects learn about each other after the fact in a cyber cafe. If you look at this from a systems approach, no one organization can "solve" the root problem. Instead, they need to work together in concert to achieve the larger mission together. However, this will only happen when knowledge is shared and projects are aware of each other (the "whose doing what, where?").

Since Microsoft, I've spent time on this issue, thinking up ways to incentive nonprofit organizations to communicate their impact in an open standard, so foundations can tap into these real-time streams of content. OpenAction (http://openaction.org) is working on this solution. (Disclosure: I'm a co-founder).

Thanks for the write up, Caroline.


in peace,
john

2. philippeboucher - June 17, 2010 at 08:24 pm

The Foundation has a serious communication problem.

I have encountered it first hand and I am still facing it with the grants allocated to promote tobacco control in Africa.

The grant to the Canadian Corporation IDRC was "terminated" by the Foundation after I discovered their Chairperson was also on the board of a tobacco company but no information has been shared about the consequences for the African "sub-grantees", the practical details of this "termination", what it meant while the Foundation continues to partner with IDRC on other projects.

No answer was provided to emails requesting information.

The website is not updated and the information provided is so minimal it is pathetic.

Is that the right way to communicate about programs worth millions of dollars?

But who dares saying the king is naked?

This survey provided some candid assessments because it remained anonymous but who dares speaking up publicly?

People, and I can understand them, don't want to risk to antagonize in any way their source of funding.

As long as the Foundation will not open up and improve its own communication, including all the now prohibited tools like blogs, the candid feedback that is regularly wished for will not exist.

What happened and is happening with the funding of tobacco control programs in Africa is a sad example of this lack of transparency, public accountability, refusal to talk clearly and publicly.

I wish I could be optimistic but I have the impression the Gates Foundation just does not have a culture of communication and transparency, quite the opposite.

My advice? Hire a bunch of bloggers to make the information more available, allow the staff to blog, oblige the grantees to blog about what they are doing.

http://blogsofbainbridge.typepad.com/africa

PS: As far as I know the Foundation has no staff with a serious experience in tobacco control.

3. philippeboucher - June 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

I want to apologize for the too negative tone of my first reaction. I guess I had a bad day and it is the sort of frustrated reaction of 'What took you so long" and "I have been trying to tell you so but was totally ignored". In any case I think it is so rare (like never) for leaders to acknowledge problems that Jeff Raikes can only be complimented for doing so. I wish I could help with the little I know.
http://blogsofbainbridge.typepad.com/africa

4. philippeboucher - June 19, 2010 at 02:07 pm

Jamais deux sans trois! I just discovered that the Gates Foundation now has a blog, Foundation Notes...
http://www.gatesfoundation.org/foundationnotes/Pages/default.aspx

It's a start toward more communication. i also listened to the first 30 minutes of the conference call devoted to the Grantee Perception Report. At the very beginning Jeff Raikes emphasizes the importance and the difficulty of getting feedback. How best to get it and how to respond probably require new features and practices.

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