News and analysis
June 15, 2010

Gates Foundation Pledges to Improve Communications With Grantees

In a letter to grantees today, Jeffrey S. Raikes, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, acknowledged that many of the charities the fund supports believe the foundation is unclear about its goals and how it makes decisions and that it is often unresponsive.

Mr. Raikes laid out a plan to improve the foundation’s relationship with nonprofit groups that includes more-frequent calls between program officers and grantees and conference calls with foundation executives.

To make his point about communicating more clearly, Mr. Raikes announced the proposals to grantees during two conference calls on Tuesday.

Ranking Below Other Foundations

The unusually blunt letter from Mr. Raikes comes in response to findings from a survey of the foundation’s grantees conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in Cambridge, Mass. The research group produces reports for foundations based on surveys of grantees. It polled more than 1,000 of Gates’s grantees for the report on the Seattle fund and, as is its practice, did not identify any of the grantees to the foundation, with the goal of promoting more candor.

The report shows that Gates’s grantees believe the foundation is making a big difference in global health, education, and other areas it supports, according to Mr. Raikes. But in most other areas, Gates ranked below the typical foundation, he said.

Many organizations said the foundation didn’t understand its grantees’ goals and strategies, Mr. Raikes said. Charities also complained about turnover at the foundation, which they said creates more work for them.

“We take this feedback very seriously, because we understand that some of these barriers are preventing our partners and us from having our maximum impact,” said Mr. Raikes, who has led the foundation since the fall of 2008.

Steps for Improvement

He pledged that, by 2013, grantees and the foundation would have stronger relationships characterized by two-way communication and a better understanding of each other's goals and processes.

Mr. Raikes identified five steps the foundation would take immediately to improve its relationships with grantees. He also said the foundation will be drafting a longer-term plan for strengthening its work with grantees. The short-term steps are:

  • Better explain the foundation’s process for proposing and approving grants.
  • Clearly communicate to grantees which staff member is their primary contact.
  • Provide an orientation to all new grantees, set expectations for them, and learn about their concerns.
  • Provide timely and meaningful responses to grantees’ progress reports.
  • Use new ways to communicate with grantees.

“We don’t see this process as a popularity contest,” Mr. Raikes said. “Even in the most productive partnerships, there is bound to be some tension. But we are absolutely committed to building relationships that will help us do our best work.”

The foundation plans to make available on its Web site recordings of the phone calls Mr. Raikes held with grantees.