Two-Way Street: Gates Foundation Seeks Better Communication

Disgruntled recipients want foundation to communicate better as well as listen to their concerns

Bill and Melinda Gates at their Foundation's headquarters in Seattle. (Photo: AP) Bill and Melinda Gates at their Foundation's headquarters in Seattle. (Photo: AP)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is emerging from two years of soul searching about how to solve problems in its interactions with grant recipients.

The foundation has “some work to do to build more productive grantee relationships,” Jeff Raikes, the foundation’s chief executive, wrote in a letter accompanying the Aug. 4 release of its 2010 annual report, first reported in The Seattle Times.

He noted that in 2009, the foundation had asked the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct a survey of its grantees. Although some of the responses were positive, Raikes said, many grant recipients criticized the foundation’s inconsistent and unclear communications about its decision-making process and its programmatic strategies, and said it should be more amenable to their feedback.

In June 2010, the foundation identified five short–term steps to improve its grantee partnerships:

  1. Better explain how its proposal and approval process works;
  2. Clearly communicate the point of contact for grants;
  3. Orient all new grantees, set expectations, and answer their questions and hear their concerns at the outset;
  4. Provide timely and substantive responses to all the progress reports they submit;
  5. Open new channels of communication, including more frequent check-in calls with program managers and conference calls that give all grantees the chance to ask questions of foundation executives.

Since then, Raikes said, an internal team has spent a year developing an improvement plan, which he expected to begin communicating to grant recipients in a series of conference calls in the autumn.

The plan encompasses “a set of principles about clear communication and high-quality interactions,” according to Raikes. He said that when the foundation devises strategies or grants, it must have a formal way to elicit grantees’ advice. It must also seek out grantees’ input during annual performance reviews for foundation employees.

The Gates Foundation is not alone in trying to iron out prickly relations with its grant recipients. Raikes noted that several peer charities, including the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the Wallace Foundation, have significantly improved their CEP survey scores, and “we won’t settle for less.”

According to The Seattle Times, the Gates Foundation had $37.4 billion in assets at the end of 2010, up from $34 billion in 2009.  Last year, it paid out some $2.5 billion in grants, compared with $3 billion in 2009. The latter difference resulted from extending the payout period into 2011 to give its staff more flexibility with funds.

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