Bring out the wine and red carpets, the annual Gates letter is here! It’s probably the closest celebrity event the philanthropy sector has to an Oscars, Grammy or even our own Filmfare awards.
You can see why the media loves the Gates Letter. It’s a letter written by two rich and famous people whom everybody recognises. This year it’s even written to Warren Buffet, another rich and famous person whom everybody recognises. It was written as response to Buffet's request to Bill and Melinda Gates to write about the work they are doing and what change it has achieved.The letter, authored by Bill and Melinda Gates, it makes you feel like you’re reading correspondence shared between friends, especially with old photographs, hand-written notes, personal anecdotes and bright colours.
Rather than trot a series of tables and pie charts, they’ve chosen to divide their letter into the thematic areas the Foundation works in – health, maternal mortality, AIDS etc. The effect is wonderful – like expecting to eat spinach and getting candy instead. In the Letter Bill attributes this to Melinda’s emphasis on storytelling, and it is definitely something the non-profit sector should learn. Readers will find it easy to follow what the letter is discussing.
Rather than toot their own horn, the Foundation chooses to present the biggest numbers that signify this change to them. These numbers are in the millions and on a global scale, reflecting work that spans hundreds of countries, multilateral partnerships with UN agencies, national governments and more. So big is their canvas that it’s hard to tell from the letter how much Gates Foundation money exactly entered the picture, and at what time.
Unlike many NGOs and corporates, the Foundation wears many hats at a time. Their mandate is to drive change as effectively as possible, and on as large a scale as possible. They are make ‘big bets’ for social change, and act as funders, investors, inventors and influencers as it suits them. Many NGOs would hesitate to partner with pharma companies, or lack the influence to speak to them as equals. Corporations often don’t look beyond building schools and hospitals or giving out free books and medicines. Governments can be swayed by populist promises and stay away from controversial interventions like contraception. But the asymmetry of the Foundation’s wealth and influence means they can build alliances with the richest corporations and biggest governments in the world.
Over time, the Gates Foundation has emerged as a formidable force in global philanthropy. So much so that questions are being raised about whether they are cornering the global agenda and its priorities. The Foundation is a non-profit that’s managed like a business and wields an almost United Nations-like diplomatic influence. Activists are concerned about their close ties to pharma companies, and their outsize influence on national governments. Their contributions to aid agencies like the UN outstrip many member countries, and closely tail what the United States itself contributes as aid.
The Foundation has come under fire in India for funding vaccine research without sufficient consent from poor patients. In early February, the Government of India also increased Health Ministry funding of a programme that was till then largely funded by Gates-established NGOs. It’s been suggested that this step was taken to counter the perception that foreign NGOs are setting the agenda for India’s developmental goals.
On public forums, the Foundation tends to be unassuming about their own efforts, thanking everyone from their donors, partner NGOs, governments and others. If anything, the Gates Foundation’s model makes its predecessors seem a little less creative, and a lot less ambitious in their approach.