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Melinda Gates Responds

November 28, 2010

A month or so ago, I wrote a cranky post in response to a Deborah Solomon Q&A with Melinda Gates ("The Donor") in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Solomon has produced dozens of Q&As for the Magazine since the Times began to run her "Questions for..." column in 2003, and over that period her work has delighted many, angered some, and gotten her into hot water on a couple of occasions.

My beef with Solomon's Melinda Gates Q&A was that she had made the interview more about herself than about Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private philanthropy. A wasted opportunity, in other words. And I suggested then that if I had been able to secure an hour of Melinda Gates' time, my questions would have focused on the work of the foundation and some of the thorny issues arising from the scale and scope of its activities. Questions such as:

  1. What are the biggest changes you've seen in philanthropy since the Gates Foundation was established in 1994?
  2. What's driving the boom in global philanthropy?
  3. How long will it take emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil to establish philanthropic traditions that rival the tradition of philanthropy in the U.S.?
  4. Does the Gates Foundation have too much influence in the areas in which it works?
  5. How do you respond to critics who argue that, given its influence, the foundation should have more than four trustees?
  6. Is there a succession plan in place for Warren Buffett and Bill Sr.? What if something happens to you or Bill?
  7. What other foundations do you admire? How about nonprofits or NGOs?
  8. What is the most critical issue not funded by the Gates Foundation that you'd like to see other grantmakers address?
  9. Would you ever consider running for public office?
  10. Given your wealth and the highly visible nature of the problems you and your husband have chosen to address through your foundation, how do you stay grounded? Where do you seek wisdom?
  11. Do you ever get tired of all the attention and scrutiny you get paid?

I never expected Melinda Gates to read the post or respond (though I thought I might be able to use the post to secure an interview with someone at the foundation down the road). So I was pleasantly surprised when I got an e-mail last week from Melissa Milburn, director of media relations in the foundation's communications office, letting me know that Melinda had indeed seen the questions and had responded to some of them -- numbers 2, 4, and 10 -- on the foundation's blog, and that her post was part of a larger effort by the foundation to be "more responsive online."

All of Melinda's answers were interesting, but I thought her comments in response to question #4 ("Does the Gates Foundation have too much influence in the areas in which it works?") were especially revealing of one of its core operating principles (what Mark Kramer has termed "catalytic philanthropy"):

We know that the foundation alone cannot solve the problems we seek to address. We use our voice to advocate for our issues, but even with all of our resources, our efforts will always be a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed — both in terms of political will and financial resources. Take the example of education. California spends about $50 billion on its k-12 system in a single year — more than our entire endowment. Tackling the biggest inequities will take the collective action of governments of wealthy and developing countries, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals.

Therefore, since the beginning of the foundation, we've relied on literally hundreds of partners. We need them for their resources, their expertise, their experience, and their talent. We don't make up our strategies in our offices, in isolation. We study the fields we’re interested in, we engage with experts, and we evolve our thinking alongside them.

Our hope is that our investments have a catalytic effect. We think that we can use our resources to uncover some new ideas and prove some new concepts so that our partners, nonprofits, governments, and businesses can work more efficiently. For example, if we can help a new vaccine get developed, then all the money nations are already investing in their routine immunization programs will go further and save more lives....

Of course, I would've loved to have had Melinda answer more of our questions. But I'm happy she took the time to personally answer some of them, and I'm looking forward to tracking the foundation's efforts to engage with a broader range of people online over the coming months and years. As the largest private philanthropy in the world (by a long shot), the Gates Foundation is uniquely positioned to model best practices for other grantmakers in a variety of areas, not least communications and transparency. In fact, it has already done quite a bit in that regard. (If you haven't checked out the Gates Foundation on Facebook or Bill on Twitter, you absolutely should.) It'll be interesting to see what else Melinda, Bill, and their team have up their sleeves.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Katy  |   November 30, 2010 at 03:21 PM

That's impressive that she read your post and responded. Hopefully she'll do something more in-depth with you in the future, now that you've caught her attention.

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