Thursday, January 29, 2009


"Foundations are unusual because they don't have to worry about being voted out at the next election or board meeting...The lack of a natural feedback loop means that we as a foundation have to be even more careful in picking our goals and being honest with ourselves when we are not achieving them."

Bill Gates, 2009 Annual Letter

Writing a personal, more conversational and reflective letter to the field is a nice touch in addition to the usual annual reports. But it would be silly to think that the letter hasn't been processed to death; it has a photo of Bill or Melinda on just about every page and is as noteworthy for what it doesn't say. I particularly appreciated the sections on "The Role of Foundations" and the "Economic Crisis."

"Foundations provide something unique when they work on behalf of the poor, who have no market power, or when they work in areas like health or education, where the market doesn't naturally work toward the right goals and where the innovation requires long-term investments. These investments are high-risk and high-reward. But reward isn't measured by financial gain, it's measured by the number of lives saved or people lifted out of poverty."

In the future, Gates might want to talk about the effects, good and bad, of philanthropic market power and how it may simplify problems, skew strategies, shape what gets paid attention to or ignored, and amplify the strengths and weaknesses of implementing institutions.

Bill Gates articulates a partnership approach to change. That's sensible and inclusive. But how do partnerships work for all parties when his foundation has so much money, lofty but focused goals, and a penchant for science, technology, and scale?

I look forward to next year's letter.

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