SEATTLE — Ten years ago, Bill Gates wrote his foundation’s first annual letter, an optimistic and candid dispatch that highlighted the organization’s achievements and outlined its goals.
Since then, his wife and co-chair, Melinda Gates, has added her signature, and the letter has taken on themes including innovation, super powers and big bets on the future. But this year, the philanthropic power pair are trying a different format, marking the 10-year milestone of when the Microsoft founder began working at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation full-time with a letter titled, “The 10 toughest questions we get asked.”
In the letter, and in a brief recent interview with The Washington Post, the duo discussed their effort to respond to some of the more frequent — and not always flattering — questions they get from people scrutinizing their work.
“The questions that we get from other people — they sharpen our focus and they help us hone what we’re doing,” Melinda Gates said in their office overlooking Lake Washington outside Seattle. “When you have to write about them and explain to people how you think, we think it makes the foundation more knowable to people, too.”
With an endowment of more than $40 billion, the Gates Foundation has a scale and reach that touches most corners of the world, making grants and funding partners who work on everything from reducing tobacco use in China to installing toilets in Africa and reforming U.S. public schools. The Gateses’ letter, released early Tuesday, includes responses to questions such as why they work with corporations, whether they’re imposing their values on other cultures and why the foundation doesn’t give more money in the United States. (The Gates Foundation spent almost $500 million on its U.S. program in 2016, about 11 percent of its expenditures on grants and direct charitable contracts.)
In it, the Gateses said that they’ve learned a lot from their education efforts, but that “the challenge has been to replicate the successes widely”; acknowledged that some of their critics don’t speak up out of fear of losing money, although they encourage feedback; said concern about their legacy isn’t what drives their giving; and acknowledged that although “it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people,” there is nothing secret about their objectives as a foundation.
The two say they’re looking to expand their work at home beyond education, noting that a recent trip to the South made them examine other ways to help lift people out of poverty.
And Melinda Gates included a pointed remark for President Trump, writing that the duty of a U.S. president is to be a role model for American values and that she wishes “our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.”
The letter comes at a time when demands by the public for accountability and transparency are escalating — all while Americans’ trust in institutions plunges to record lows. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey released in January, finds that global trust in nongovernmental organizations by the “informed public” dipped three percentage points over the past year and fell nine overall in the United States. (Of the four types of institutions Edelman asks about — media, government and business being the three others — the role of a nongovernmental organization comes closest to the work of the private foundation.)
Yet although the Gateses have received heaps of praise for their expansive philanthropic efforts, their foundation has faced plenty of criticism over the years from various corners. Academics and global health researchers have questioned whether they have dominance over research or aid priorities. Some advocates have criticized what they call a traditionally top-down approach to education overhauls. And people on both sides of the political aisle have questioned the Gates-backed Common Core State Standards.
Although some tough questions are addressed in the letter, other critiques are not, potentially opening a Pandora’s box of additional questions from experts and pundits about why some topics were or weren’t chosen.
Experts on leadership and communication said the strategy highlights the importance of being transparent and open with critics — but also the many complexities and risks that go along with it.
“It’s authentic to take on tough questions, and not use just your typical P.R. format,” said Bill George, a former chief executive of Medtronic and a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, applauding the approach. Even if it opens the two up to more tough questions, George said, that’s a good thing. “That debate is healthy,” he said.
Yet others said the couple’s commitment to the approach will be tested by how they communicate going forward.
“If you’re opening up this process, and this is the way you want to present your organization, it’s going to create a significant response, and you have to be ready for it,” said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who studies communications strategy. “With social media, you have to be prepared to continue that conversation now for pretty much forever. This can’t be a one-and-done thing.”
In fact, he said, taking a more open strategy to answering tough questions can actually heighten expectations, making it harder for leaders to meet the standard of how outsiders believe they should respond.
“If you appear to be more transparent and more involved and more of a listener, people are going to raise their expectations of you,” Argenti said. “It’s like the nail that sticks up gets beaten down.”
Asked whether the letter could leave them open to even more tough questions, Bill Gates said they would be following up on the letter’s release by answering more that are proposed by the public.
“I’d be surprised” if those questions were tougher than the ones they selected, he said in the interview. “We didn’t dodge. We didn’t optimize for easiness.”
They’re expected to answer a selection of additional questions that arise in online comments and will hold a Q&A event at Hunter College in New York on Tuesday with composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda that will be streamed via Facebook Live.
Melinda Gates said that for the letter, they selected questions they were hearing often, whether over the past five to six years or even over the past 12 months. One of the latter might be how the Trump administration’s policies affect the foundation. Bill Gates writes that in the past year, he has been asked about Trump and the administration’s policies “more often than all the other topics in this letter combined.” He also writes that “the America First worldview concerns me,” noting that “my view is that engaging with the world has proven over time to benefit everyone, including Americans, more often than withdrawing does.”
In the interview, he reiterated that view, saying the Gates Foundation is “working extra hard to articulate the benefits — even in a U.S.-centric framework — of less need to go out with hard power,” or a show of coercive or military force. “We didn’t think we’d have to explain things so strongly in that framework to maintain the U.S. generosity level,” he said.
The Gateses and their foundation have opened up at times in the past about when they’ve fallen short. In his first annual letter, in 2009, for instance, Bill Gates wrote that “many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” speaking about one of the foundation’s education strategies.
In a 2014 Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” Gates wrote that “a lot of our failures have been backing science that didn’t work out.” And in a speech in October announcing a pivot in the foundation’s education strategy, Gates said he would end the foundation’s direct investment in teacher evaluations and ratings and focus funding on strategies identified by local schools, a pivot some saw as a recognition that top-down approaches have limits.
One of the challenges the Gateses face is not only addressing questions and concerns about the wide diversity of intractable global problems they do work on — such as eradicating polio in Nigeria and the Middle East and reducing homelessness in the Pacific Northwest — but demands about the problems they don’t fund.
“Even though we’re in so many different areas — just take global health and disease areas — people will ask us all the time to put our voice yet behind something else,” Melinda Gates said. “We have to think very thoughtfully and carefully about where we’re going to use that voice and that influence.”