So to combat this, the new CEO of the Gates Foundation is working improve the image by doing more listening to people. Today's issue of the USA Today published a profile of Gates Foundation CEO Jeffrey Raikes. Writer Julie Schmit lists the long list of complaints against the Foundation and Raikes efforts to improve communication with the critics.
"Our success will come from listening and learning from others," Raikes says.
Raikes, who worked in Bill Gates' inner circle at Microsoft for 27 years, is often described by colleagues as a "great listener."
But that's not always the description used for the Gates Foundation, the world's biggest philanthropic organization, with an endowment of $35 billion — about three times more than the second-biggest in the U.S., the Ford Foundation. Last year, the Gates Foundation gave away $3 billion. That's an amount on par with the individual gross domestic product that year of almost three dozen countries, including Togo and Swaziland.
Instead, the Gates Foundation has been painted by critics and even admirers as sometimes too heavy-handed in saying how its money is used and too prone to listening to the recommendations of experts vs. grass-roots groups when setting its strategies to battle global poverty. "There's concern that their programs are too top down and they don't listen to the grass roots," says Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. The institute, which is part of Georgetown University, focuses on research and an array of public policy issues.
Raikes, now 20 months into the CEO job, says he's working to improve communication between the foundation and the more than 1,000 grantees it funds worldwide. But Raikes also defends the Gates Foundation's history of setting goals for grantees and for holding them accountable. "In order to succeed ... you have to put a stake in the ground," Raikes says. "But it's extremely important that we be listening ... even if viewpoints are not the same as ours."
Born of the fortunes spun by Microsoft and its co-founder Bill Gates, the 16-year-old Gates Foundation has certainly put a stake in the ground. While companies develop drugs or technologies to make money and governments deploy tax dollars for services, the Gates Foundation — whose central tenet is "all lives have equal value" — is a catalyst philanthropist pushing sometimes risky innovations to reach audacious goals. Among them: eradicate malaria and polio, vastly curb new HIV infections, reduce hunger and poverty in Africa, and double the number of low-income U.S. students who finish college or some post-high school program so that they're equipped for today's job market.
To achieve those goals, the Gates Foundation funds everything from U.S. school districts looking to boost teacher training to vaccine researchers and efforts to revolutionize agricultural production in Africa, in part, by increasing crop yields.
The foundation has had a big impact. Within five years, hopes are high that the world will have a first-generation vaccine to start to protect against severe malaria among young children, says Jacqueline Sherris, vice president of PATH, a Seattle-based non-profit that advances vaccine and other health work. PATH gets 57% of its funding from the Gates Foundation. Without the Gates Foundation, which revived research in the all-but-forgotten field, that wouldn't be likely, Sherris says. Malaria causes 770,000 deaths a year in Africa. More effective vaccines are possible within 15 years.
Criticism has risen with the Gates Foundation's impact and influence.
In the U.S., where the foundation concentrates mostly on efforts to reform education, the Gates Foundation, over the years, has given money to almost every major education think tank, leaving few to criticize its power, asserts former assistant secretary of Education Diane Ravitch in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Those who do not "follow lockstep" with the foundation can get punished, says David Shreve, federal affairs counsel at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He says his group failed to get a Gates Foundation grant renewed after its policy positions did not adhere closely enough with the foundation's education-reform strategies. "They made it clear we weren't toeing the line," Shreve says. Raikes says the foundation invites "rigorous dialogue."
The foundation's clout was also evident in April when it, represented by Bill Gates who works full time at the foundation, joined four countries, including the U.S., to announce a $900 million fund to help poor farmers in Africa and South Asia grow more food and earn more money.
"I've no reason at all to doubt that Bill and Melinda Gates really do want to end hunger in Africa," says Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. But he says the problem is that, because they're the world's largest source of private philanthropy, "Their agenda shapes those not only of other foundations, but governments and international development organizations, too," Patel says.