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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

We Are Listening!

December 19, 2011

How can we improve our work with our grantees and partners?

At the foundation’s recent convening in Seattle of Family Health (maternal, newborn & child health, nutrition and family planning) grantees and partners, Achieving Lasting Impact at Scale , our discussion focused on, among other things, innovative approaches to spreading life-saving family health behavior change and products in low-resource communities.

But in order to achieve lasting impact in these regions of the world, it’s equally as important that we work optimally with grantees and partners, with those organizations doing the work “on the ground.”  So, we asked the following questions: What are we doing well in our communications and interactions with our grantees and partners? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing more of?

Our grantees and partners responded through a survey and focus group discussions. We have analyzed the results and compared them to what we heard previously in a number of phone calls with grantees about a year ago. Based on those calls, we put some things into action to respond to what we heard then.

Now, the questions are: How are we doing? Where are we improving and where do we need to focus additional attention?

I want all of our grantees and partners to know that I greatly appreciate your feedback around our strengths in building grantee partnerships and particularly around the areas that are still a challenge for us.

Our relationships with you tell the story on how effective we’re going to be, and we want to make sure that these relationships are as strong as possible. I want to reiterate what Greg Shaw, the foundation’s Senior Advisor for Strategic Partnerships, told grantees and partners on December 15 : we are committed to making an effort to strengthen our partnership with you.

I’m sharing what we heard from you during the convening in an effort to hold ourselves accountable, and ask you to help us to make our commitments a reality.

The Family Health team, the groups at the foundation working on maternal, newborn & child health, nutrition and family planning recently changed some things in our processes and templates for proposal development to make them more transparent and manageable.

For example, we now organize a call with potential grantees during the proposal development process to go over and answer questions about the forms. Grantees, you told us that you noticed these changes and that they have been helpful.

Even though some templates (such as the budget) are still not as user-friendly as they could be, your feedback indicates that my team is at least more responsive than a year ago in helping you to understanding and work through those templates.

I’m also happy to hear that our grantees appreciate the depth of technical knowledge of our Family Health staff and appreciate the responsive, approachable, flexible and respectful interactions that you have with them. This really means a lot to me. I am very proud of the team and am happy to know that grantees see the value they bring to our partnerships.

Grantees, you told us that you like it when we bring you together to network and learn from each other, and wish that we did more of this, and did more to share what we are learning. I have heard this point consistently, and we are striving to bring you all together earlier in our thinking and in the development of our strategies and initiatives.

We plan to engage you in these ways a lot more going forward. Our recent Seattle convening Achieving Lasting Impact at Scale is one example.

Of course, when every feedback loop is opened, ‘pain points’ are also highlighted. There are important areas of grantee partnerships that we need to improve.

We heard that we need to set realistic goals during proposal development with accurate expectations of what can actually get done through any particular grant. And along with that, we need to set appropriate expectations for our level of engagement with you during the implementation phase and have enough staff capacity to meet engagement expectations.

I heard you say that we tend to micro-manage during the grant proposal process without setting clear expectations or giving a clear context of how decisions are made or why more information is requested.  I need to do some further assessment on this issue with my team in order to pinpoint just what is behind this issue and devise feasible and effective solutions.

You also said there is not enough clarity on what foundation priorities are and how priority shifts affect grantee goals. We are in the midst of a major re-imagining and re-design of the foundation. But while foundation organizational structures may change, we do not anticipate significant changes in our strategic priorities at this time.You asked for a communication channel to pose questions or voice comments, or raise issues with a foundation staff member beyond your program officer. That would be me!

You also asked for more opportunities to connect with each other and not necessarily with the foundation at the center. You requested more support for grantee organizational and institutional capacity and want feedback on foundation reports and information on changes in strategies on a more timely basis.

And finally, you asked us for feedback on how you and other grantees are doing, highlighting successful programs or grantee stories, as well as to provide opportunities to learn from failures.

I can’t say I have the solution to all of these ‘pain points’ today. But I do know that your responses are the first step in determining our actions to improving our work together.

We are reflecting on your feedback to identify concrete steps to respond to your concerns. I will get back to you over the coming months to continue the conversation - with our thoughts on how to address these issues.

I invite each and every one of you to continue to challenge our thinking.

I want you to ask us the important questions about things you think are missing from our strategies, about our decision making, or ways we work with grantees. No question is unwelcome because we need to work together in order to reach our desired impact.

Your thoughts and feedback are greatly appreciated. Please keep the comments coming. Send me a note anytime at and let me know how we can continue to do better in our work with you to create impact for women and children in low resource settings around the world.

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