Bill Gates – Renaissance Man

January 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

Bill Gates recently published his 2010 Annual Letter “which includes his thoughts on the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and progress it is making toward achieving its goals.”  It is fascinating reading and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be in good company.  The 2009 letter created such a high level of interest that Mr. Gates launched the Gates Notes website.  More on that in a minute…

For those not familiar with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it is the largest philanthropic foundation in the world.  In partnership with Warren Buffet, the fund stands at $37 billion.  Last year alone, the foundation gave $3 billion to a variety of projects in its areas of focus (global health programs, global development programs, United States programs, disaster relief, and scholarships).

Beyond its size, what is unique is the approach the foundation takes to the selection and execution of projects.  Mr. Gates has, not surprisingly, grabbed hold of free-market, capitalist concepts and brought them to the realm of philanthropy and the non-profit.  This applies to how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation operates – full disclosure and, hence, the now over-used but in the this case totally relevant word, transparency – and how it analyzes, selects, executes, and measures the results of each of its initiatives.

Further, in their annual  report, they tout what works and call out what doesn’t in order for others to learn from their attempts.  And let’s be honest, very few for-profit, not-for-profit, or governmental organizations do that.  And because of its size (and apparently at Mr. Buffett’s urging) the foundation is willing to take risks, to try something new (another abused word: innovation), to collect all of the necessary data and, from that, to map out possible solutions to the problem at-hand and choose one.  Mr. Gates seems to have swallowed whole two notions which are to be avoided should one wish to actually get anything done: paralysis by analysis and the perfect being the enemy of the good.  This means that there will be times when the results miss the mark.  Case in point, an article by The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein points out that:

Gates is the first to acknowledge that some of his philanthropic pet projects have failed: Between 2000 and 2009, the foundation donated $2 billion to failing high schools, much of it used to break up large schools into smaller ones with the goal of providing students with more one-on-one attention. Last year, in a Washington Post op-ed, Gates wrote, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”

Despite the failures, much of what they do is common sense and provides for the best opportunity for success: assess beforehand to see if a project will be sustainable after they leave; ensure the long term costs will be less than the benefits; determine technology and delivery constraints.  If you just read two pages of the letter – Introduction and Innovation – you’ll be amazed at how clear they are in their mission and how they operate.

Now, back to the Gates Notes.  If you have the desire to be exposed to the thinking, conversations, and continuous learning of Bill Gates, you need to check out the site for “What I’m Thinking About, What I’m Learning, My Travels, Curious Classroom, Conversations, and Infrequently Asked Questions.”  There is so much knowledge, information, and commentary, you could easily spend hours roaming around, reading, and watching.  For example, you can watch Charlie Rose’s interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as well as that with Bill Gates and his father.  You can read about “Education Reform and KIPP.”  KIPP has proven to be such a success (80% of their students attend college versus 20% of other low income students) that Bill Gates was prompted to write, “I find it stunning that the educational schools are not training teachers to use the KIPP way of teaching classes.  What the heck is going on with schools of education and what is the field going to do to get some of them to get involved in this kind of work?”

I love that.  And the rest of the work the foundation is doing.

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