Monday, January 25, 2010

Bill Gates Second Annual Letter for the Gates Foundation - A Must Read Again

The focus of this year’s annual letter from Bill Gates is innovation and how it can make the difference between a bleak future and a bright one.

Bill sets the tone upfront with this, “Melinda and I see our foundation’s key role as investing in innovations that would not otherwise be funded. This draws not only on our backgrounds in technology but also on the foundation’s size and ability to take a long-term view and take large risks on new approaches. Warren Buffett put it well in 2006 when he told us, “Don’t just go for safe projects. You can bat a thousand in this game if you want to by doing nothing important."

The Gates Foundation may be huge but it also is a family affair. Bill, Melinda and Bill’s father are hands on leaders of the foundation. Warren Buffett is a co-trustee but he really is a member of their extended family. Although the Gates Foundation is professionally managed as a big business of which Bill is very proud, it also has the personal touch of the corner store. Bill discusses how he and Melinda champion separate projects but work together as a team and learn from each other. He mentions advice that Warren has given him and his father’s grounding. The letter doesn’t have the sound of something written by corporate PR, rather it is much more Warren Buffett like – addressing results, hopes, and dreams in a down to earth way.

I was very impressed in the way Bill presented a summary of some of their innovation projects and all nonprofits can learn from this. A grid with projects in global health, global development, and the United States provides a summary of each of these items:
• Description of the innovation
• Time frame for the project
• Who will benefit
• What is the benefit
• Constraints
• Risk – High, Medium, Low
• Partners

It is an excellent snapshot of their work, its importance and the risk level of success they associate with it. I particularly like that they included partners for each project in this summary.

Although the sections of the letter are somewhat different than last year, Bill again discusses the status – improvements and remaining challenges in global health care – especially childhood deaths, malaria and polio. Bill summarizes the accomplishments extremely well and then frames clearly the challenges remaining for each one. Bill’ section on AIDS/HIV doesn’t offer the encouragement of almost total eradication that his section on polio does but it does outline the foundation’s efforts.

When Bill shifts to the US projects the focus shifts from health to education. Bill explains, “The foundation works on health in poor countries because we think it’s the best way to improve lives globally. In the United States, we believe the best way to improve lives is to improve public education.” Bill talks about the importance of using more than student achievement tests and their partnership with schools and unions together in innovative projects to improve teacher performance. Bill also talks about online learning and using technology in an interactive way and with teachers working cooperatively to increase learning. I learned a little bit about this myself last year when I worked with the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning and I was very impressed.

Near the end of the letter there is a striking section and chart “Rich Countries’ Aid Generosity. Wow – the US gives the most in absolute terms but is far down the list in percent of GDP – very eye opening.

Bill ends with the “Looking Ahead" section and addresses head-on an area that the foundation has been criticized for – not funding climate change projects. He says “Because the foundation invests in areas where there is not a big market, I have not yet seen a way that we can play a unique role here, but I am investing in several ideas outside the foundation. Bill announces his new website where he’ll report on his trips and activities throughout the year.

In summary, the Gates are very focused and you can not help but be impressed by their dedication, determination, and disciplined approach to their goals. Visit the Gates Foundation website now and read the whole letter. Just as it was last year – it is a must read.

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