The clarity and candor of Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates answered ten tough questions about their charitable foundation in their tenth annual letter. Their writing is in the first person, clear, and direct, and they do a great job of admitting their mistakes. All corporate communications should be as candid and straightforward as this.

Let’s look at some excerpts. The questions and answers are directly from their letter; the commentary is mine.

Why don’t you give more in the United States?

Melinda: Our foundation spends about $500 million a year in the United States, most of it on education. That’s a lot, but it is less than the roughly $4 billion we spend to help developing countries.

We don’t compare different people’s suffering. All suffering is a terrible tragedy. We do, however, assess our ability to help prevent different kinds of suffering. When we studied the global health landscape, we realized that our resources could have a disproportionate impact. We knew we could help save literally millions of lives. So that’s what we’ve tried to do. . . .

We’ve spent $15.3 billion on vaccines over the past 18 years. And it’s been a terrific investment. Better immunization is one reason why the number of children who die has gone down by so much, from almost 10 million in 2000 to 5 million last year. That’s 5 million families that didn’t have to suffer the trauma of losing a daughter or a son, a sister or a brother. . . .

Bill: . . . The issues of economic mobility in America are deeply intertwined: education, employment, race, housing, mental health, incarceration, substance abuse. We haven’t decided how what we’ve been learning might affect our giving, but it has certainly had an effect on us. We will share more about our approach when we have settled on a strategy.

Commentary: Melinda Gates wants you to know that from the perspective of her foundation, a life saved in Africa is the same as a life saved in America. There is no attempt to hide anything, including the relative size of the amount they spend. This is contrary to the rising popularity of “America First,” but she states it as a principle without getting into a fight about it. Bill’s answer about the challenges in America is “I don’t know yet.” I think we can agree that Bill Gates is pretty smart. If he says he doesn’t know yet, I’m looking forward to his figuring it out.

What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?

Bill: A lot, but not as much as either of us would like. A lot, but not as much as either of us would like.

We made education the focus of our work in the United States because it is the key to a prosperous future, for individuals and the country. Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion. And the statistics are even worse for disadvantaged students. . . .

Commentary: This answer goes into more detail with strategies and statistics I haven’t shown here. It gives you a sense of the work the foundation and its leaders are doing to try to untangle root causes of problems and the solutions that will work in our decentralized education system. This sort of thoughtful investigation and testing against evidence is lacking in our political leaders. To the extent that corporate leaders are doing it, they are rarely honest about their failings and struggles in their public communications. I’d like to see more of the frankness of Bill Gates in the people we trust to lead our other institutions.

Does saving kids’ lives lead to overpopulation?

Melinda: We asked ourselves the same question at first. . . . When more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. . . . Saving the lives of children is its own justification. It also has the potential to improve life for everyone.

Graphic: Bill and Melinda Gates

Commentary: An effective use of statistics along with an emotional argument. This answer appeals to both sides of the brain.

How are President Trump’s policies affecting your foundation’s work?

Bill: In the past year, I’ve been asked about President Trump and his policies more often than all the other topics in this letter combined. . . . 

[T]he America First worldview concerns me. It’s not that the United States shouldn’t look out for its people. The question is how best to do that. My view is that engaging with the world has proven over time to benefit everyone, including Americans, more than withdrawing does. Even if we measured everything the government did only by how much it helped American citizens, global engagement would still be a smart investment.

We have met with President Trump and his team, just as we have met with people in previous administrations. With every administration—Republican and Democrat—we agree on some things and disagree on others. Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with, we believe it’s still important to work together whenever possible. We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off.

Commentary: Rather than dodge this politically difficult question, Bill Gates answers it. And rather than demonize Trump, he addresses the challenges of working with him and describes which of Trump’s policies he finds problematic.

Is it fair that you have so much influence?

Melinda: No. It’s not fair that we have so much wealth when billions of others have so little. And it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people. World leaders tend to take our phone calls and seriously consider what we have to say. Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.

But there is nothing secret about our objectives as a foundation. We are committed to being open about what we fund and what the results have been. (It’s not always immediately clear what’s been successful and what hasn’t, but we work hard to assess our impact, course correct, and share lessons.) We do this work, and use whatever influence we have, to help as many people as possible and to advance equity around the world. Although we’ve had some success, I think it would be hard to argue at this point that we made the world focus too much on health, education, or poverty.

Commentary: What would you do if you had tens of billions of dollars? Melinda Gates is saying, basically, they’re doing what they should be doing, and they’re not embarrassed by their wealth. That’s honest and believable. What other wealthy person acts with this level of transparency?

Can you communicate as Bill and Melinda Gates do?

No.

When you are the sole people in charge of an unimaginable amount of money, you can do as you wish. The rest of us have to worry about our bosses, our shareholders, and our colleagues. Bill and Melinda Gates have a freedom to communicate clearly that the rest of us can only imagine.

But they can inspire us, not just with their acts, but with how they talk about them.

Admit your mistakes. Share where you’re working on things. When people disagree with you, explain why you think you’re right without vilifying the person who asked, and cite evidence to back up your point of view.

You may not have $41 billion in assets, but you can learn from somebody who does.

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