This summer Caroline Hartnell, editor of Alliance magazine, called to ask if I would take on the task of putting together a special section looking at the influence and impact of the Gates Foundation. I was a fill-in—the original guest editor had backed out, deciding that being the public face of a critique of the foundation might not be the best career move. As just one voice in a noisy field, coupled with a deep contrarian streak, I accepted Caroline’s invitation.

The reason I accepted is that I strongly believe that philanthropy needs to get over its reflexive aversion to causing offense or publicly criticizing others in the sector. Effective philanthropy is like searching for a penny in a dark room with your hands tied behind your back. In such a situation, criticism, even pointed criticism, is an absolute must—as long as that criticism is tempered with the humility of being in the same boat. My hope was that the collection of articles I put together would be neither a simplistic bashing of an easy target (by virtue of the foundation’s size and notoriety) nor an anodyne prescription closer to flattery than criticism.

I hope that is what we achieved—you can judge for yourself. But I’ve been heartened by the three public conversations that the issue spurred: a dialogue hosted by the Salesforce Foundation and the Northern California Association of Grantmakers in early November, a panel discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute on December 6th, and a webinar hosted by SSIR.

Here I want to summarize what I took away from working with contributors to the issue and participating in the follow-on dialogues:

1) First, a defense of the foundation: there is a lot to praise about the what the foundation has accomplished and how it has gone about its work—you might even say a surprising amount of praiseworthy work given its youth, no matter what its resources. Ed Skloot’s description from the dialogues is spot on: this is the foundation we have been wishing for, at least insofar as it follows the standard advice given to foundations on how to be most effective. The foundation has a clear focus, sets priorities, uses “more than money,” appreciates the importance of advocacy, hires (and makes grants to) experts, encourages innovation, and doesn’t shy from controversy. It is among the 46 of the top 100 foundations (by assets) that conduct Grantee Perception Reports with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and among the smaller percentage that report at least some of the findings of that report.

2) Second, a plea for realism: there is plenty of criticism of the foundation in the public square, but I find that the majority of it falls into one of four useless categories: a) they fund something I don’t like (see teacher evaluations), b) they don’t fund something I do like (see practically everything), c) they don’t fund me (sigh), and d) they aren’t perfect. None of these categories yield useful insights to the foundation or to others hoping to learn from the foundation’s experience, which is where critique is likely to yield public benefit. In regard to the last category specifically, I don’t think I’m known for pulling punches on philanthropy sector actors, but I do think useful critiques must take context into account. Therefore when we critique the foundation for lack of transparency, for instance, it is important to ask, “Compared to what foundation?” and/or, “What is the realistic alternative to this behavior?” The fact is that the foundation is granting an average of about $10 million a day (presuming they take some weekends off), and employs more than 1,000 people. Managing any organization this large poses significant challenges that haven’t been fully solved by any organization, much less a relatively new foundation operating in an environment without meaningful predecessors from which to learn.

3) Third, context matters: saying the Gates Foundation is big is an understatement. It’s annual giving is more than six times greater than its largest “peer.” But the Gates Foundation simply isn’t very big in the context of what its goals are. It’s annual grants in the US amount to about $400 million—which would still be one of the 10 largest foundation givers on its own—but compare that to the $25 billion annual budget of the NYC school system alone. Or compare the $2 billion it spends annually on global health to the $59 billion in oil revenue earned annually by Nigeria or to India’s $300 billion in foreign exchange reserves. It’s not just fiscal context that matters. For instance, decrying Gates’s attempt to influence education policy without acknowledging that teachers’ unions are also wealthy, private, and nearly unaccountable institutions influencing education policy is intellectually dishonest. There’s also historical context to consider. As Megan Tompkins-Stange pointed out in the SSIR webinar, debating the proper role and influence of foundations is not a new phenomenon based on Gates’s size. These are perennial concerns, and we should evaluate our concerns with a view to the historical record. When was the last time you looked back at the 1960’s and thought, “The Ford Foundation’s influence was a real problem back then”? None of this is to say that concerns about size, unaccountability, or influence are moot. But before we say the sky is falling, we should check to see what is materially different than the past.

4) Fourth, speaking truth to such power is enormously difficult: money confers power, and that power can influence people in unexpected ways. Caroline and I were surprised at the number of people who declined an invitation to contribute because they were current, former, or potential future partners of the foundation. None of these people suggested that they have been deliberately muzzled. But the ubiquity of the foundation in its areas of interest almost inevitably dampens debate. Laura Freschi, in her article and during the conversations, raised the very important question of accountability. The foundation funds (wisely, many would agree) research, implementation, and media—but when everyone is potentially a grantee, who will ask the tough questions? There is no simple answer to this question. It will bedevil the foundation for the entirety of its existence. Based on what I’ve heard, the single most important thing for the foundation to do is to cultivate voices of dissent.

5) Fifth, fight the power: Bruce Sievers quoted extensively from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State in both of the conversations he participated in (it’s available on Kindle for less than $10. Buy it. Read it.), and I can’t think of a better source of wisdom on the inherent problem of power that the Gates Foundation faces. The book is an examination of great tragedies of the 20th century perpetrated by large institutions under the banner of progress. I’ll just quote one sentence: “If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.” Scott goes on to explain that large, powerful institutions almost inevitably create in their members such a perspective. There are ways to combat this tendency but it requires diligent effort every day, by nearly everyone in the organization.

6) Sixth, up the transparency: one of the ways to combat the tendencies Scott documents is to increase transparency. This is the advice the participants in the discussions almost unanimously agreed on: the Gates Foundation needs to become more transparent, faster. It needs to provide more insight into how it makes decisions, what factors it considers, how it forms strategies, what it learns, and why it changes directions. This increased transparency is not just for—or even primarily for—those on the outside. It is the best way for the foundation to get the feedback it needs, determine its limitations and blind spots, and hear the wisdom of those outside its domain. The good news is that the foundation has done this before. Jonathan Morduch’s contribution to the Alliance issue illustrates how transparent and engaged the foundation was in forming and implementing its strategy in financial access. That transparency undoubtedly improved the foundation’s choices and made them more influential than they would have been otherwise (in a field where the foundation is not a dominant funder).

My thanks to the many people who participated in these conversations—in print, person, or online—especially those from the Gates Foundation, including Jeff Raikes and Darin McKeever. I’m encouraged that the issues raised by the Gates Foundation’s existence and influence are being discussed publicly, and hopeful that they will make the Gates Foundation and every foundation that follows in its footsteps better at what they do.

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