News and analysis
November 17, 2014

Gates Foundation Leader Urges Grant Makers to Avoid Arrogance of Power

Susan Desmond-Hellman, the new leader of the world’s biggest philanthropy, said a priority for her will be fighting against the “inevitable” imbalance of power between donors and grant recipients, and she urged other grant makers also to be vigilant in guarding against the arrogance of power.

“Whether you are giving away $10 or $10-million or $10-billion, there is a power asymmetry,” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann said at the Independent Sector conference, which opened here on Sunday. “It is to our detriment that we ignore that power asymmetry so I think we have to work extra hard.”

The comments came during a panel that featured Dr. Desmond-Hellmann, Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive of Mercy Corps, and Earl Lewis, chief executive of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The conversation cut across subjects including personal career paths, Ebola, and 10-year goals.

At one point, moderator Kelvin Taketa, chief executive of the Hawaii Community Foundation, pointed out that grant seekers don’t feel like they can critique their donors and asked how the panelists collect honest feedback.

Dr. Desmond-Hellman said she understands that concern from personal experience.

Before she became chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on May 1, she was in a fundraising-heavy position as chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco. The measure of her success, she says, particularly during the recession, was often how much money she brought in.

“I have a very clear understanding of what it is like to be on the other side of that and know that the outcomes if you don’t raise money can be layoffs, closing programs, stopping things that one is passionate about,” she said. “I hope that makes me more able to put myself in the shoes of someone else who is asking for funding.”

The Gates foundation has in recent years been surveying its grantees and other partners, she said, and the feedback has made it clear that the organization needs greater transparency and better understanding of other organizations’ missions and aspirations.

“We take that feedback very seriously,” she said. “We get reports, and it is our report card on how we are doing. There are ways we need to do better.”

Speaking about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Dr. Desmond-Hellmann said that it has some of the same characteristics of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which she witnessed up close as a young doctor in San Francisco. She cited the stigma, the threat to health-care workers, and the impact on families. In September, the Gates foundation committed $50-million to combat the Ebola virus, a move that Dr. Desmond-Hellmann described as “quickly putting money on the table, getting it to the front lines.”

“There has been so much that we have to learn and so many things that are going to be lessons,” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann said. “But there has been a gathering of the global community in ways that make me optimistic. There has been a coming together from the private sector to the public sector, NGOs, governments to lean in.”

When asked about how the foundation will judge its success 10 years from now, Ms. Desmond-Hellmann said she hopes to see a marked reduction in the number of impoverished countries and that the U.S. education system will be playing a strong role in helping people escape poverty. She also wants the foundation’s employees and partners to enjoy their work with the organization.

She said she is aware of how history will look back at the successes and failures of the Gates fund, adding: “It is important to me that that history be positive, and so I balance every day with that optimism and that inspiration that comes from our mission and the leadership that has preceded me at the foundation with the realism that in the end we have to get things done.”