Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Lessons from Spiderman for The Gates Foundation

April 06, 2012

Do you remember the scene in the movie Spiderman when Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is dying in his arms? Uncle Ben provides words of wisdom to guide his young nephew:

"With great power comes great responsibility."

I’d say these are words to live by, not just for Peter Parker, but for all of us. It was also the theme of a discussion I had during a seminar series titled Global Health Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University this week. We talked about the influence of philanthropy in the world and, specifically, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As one of the larger donors in global health, development, and even in programs in the United States, the foundation recognizes that we wield a lot of influence and power. In recent interviews and articles, a few main themes have been repeated regarding power and influence.

For example, if everyone is (or hopes to become or remain) a potential grantee of the Gates Foundation, perhaps no one will ask the tough questions of us. Other people have said that our entry into certain fields can lead to less of a diversity of solutions as other foundations factor our priorities into their decision-making, and some may take our entry as a signal for them to exit as they may assume that their funding will make little additional difference.

And then, of course, there is the issue of setting global priorities that can be controversial.

We take the responsibility of being a global leader very seriously, and we strive to use that influence wisely. We want to infuse our work with a sense of optimism for what can be achieved, bring rigor and innovation to the development of solutions, and collaborate “smartly” with others.

We develop our investment strategies by following a rigorous process based on evidence, priorities, the landscape of investments and activities by other partners, and where we can make the greatest impact.  

We focus on traditionally neglected areas that have the greatest potential for impact; we strive to amplify the effectiveness of proven interventions through scaling up for impact. Where tools don’t exist, we invest in innovation and discovery research, we target a limited number of long-term priorities, and we strive to complement, not replace, the roles played by others.

In 2009, we received some not-so-flattering findings from an anonymous survey of grantees. It was clear we needed to establish feedback loops where grantees and partners can feel safe and feel they are able to be honest, criticize, and provide ideas for improvement. 

The Family Health team at the foundation made a decision to reach out more consistently to grantees and partners. My recent blog series gives some insight into that division, and how we operate.

In that series, I solicited feedback from readers and hoped to create greater transparency into our activities. It was encouraging to see in the accompanying Tweet session a dialogue between partners about global health issues that we each face in our daily efforts to improve the health of women and children.

We continued this dialogue at Yale, and during the seminar, students and faculty offered their own ideas on how we can be responsible with our power and influence.

There were a lot of great questions about how we engage with families, communities, other partners, and governments to ensure that we are creating solutions that they really want.

Participants expressed interest in the role we play in market shaping to improve availability of and access for the poor to life-saving innovations. They wondered about the extent to which we understand, and take into account the priorities and principles of our grantees and partners, and they had questions about how we view capacity building, and work to ensure the sustainability of our work.

Questions came up about how we balance our work aimed at shorter-term versus longer-term solutions, and about how we monitor and evaluate our work as a measure of accountability. This is something that we discuss regularly at the foundation and I’d love to hear your views on how you approach this.I have found, as I did again yesterday, that students often ask the most honest and insightful questions.

At the Gates Foundation, we recognize the influence and power we have, and are keen to learn from our experiences as well as those of our grantees, partners, and engaged individuals who also care deeply about the issues we all are seeking to address. We don’t have all the answers and are not seeking to dominate the search for solutions. However, we are driving with great optimism, and with the belief that all lives have equal value—and that everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.

I left Yale hoping that the discussion had been enriching for them, but was certain that this kind of intellectual dialogue is critically important for us to do our best work.

I’d like to hear from you regarding your views on how we can do better in the areas posed.

We’re not Spiderman, but we do share his sense of responsibility and urgency to act.

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