The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent
The Art of Giving

The Art of Giving

Last updated: March 18, 2021 | June 16, 2007 | Elisa Mueller

Table of Contents

  • Define the problem and opportunity
  • Example
  • Develop the strategy and agree on a budget
  • Example
  • Make grants consistent with the strategy
  • Measure results and learn
  • Example
  • Adjust strategy
  • Example

Our work begins with Bill and Melinda Gates’s belief that all lives have equal value. We think all people deserve the chance to have healthy, productive lives. We have been developing a process that helps us decide how to spend our time, effort, and money so we can accomplish that goal for as many people as possible. This process helps us choose the issues we will work on and the groups to which we will make grants. This page explains that process.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett set our overarching priorities—such as improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the developing world and improving high school education in the U.S.—and they establish high-level goals for our grantmaking programs. Then our three program teams devise a strategy for meeting these goals.

We do not pretend that the process outlined below is unique to us. In fact, we have borrowed much from other organizations that have been making grants much longer than we have. We also recognize that we don’t always follow this process to the letter with every grant; in some cases, it represents our aspirations as much as reality. Finally, this process is evolving as we get better at choosing strategies, making grants, and evaluating the results.

  • Define the problem and opportunity
  • Develop the strategy and agree on a budget
  • Make grants consistent with strategy
  • Measure results and learn
  • Adjust strategy

Define the problem and opportunity

Long before we make a single grant for any given issue, we listen and learn about problems that cause great inequity. Whether the challenge is low-yield crops in Africa or low graduation rates in Los Angeles, we begin by immersing ourselves in information about problems that cause great harm and get far too little attention.

We hire people with deep knowledge of the issues to staff our grantmaking program teams. We also seek different views from people beyond our own staff, including academics, businesses, scientists, local organizations, and other philanthropists. We’re interested in what has worked and what has failed. As we consider the best approach, we look for ways to complement other efforts and engage with partners. We also have advisory panels in our program areas to give us candid advice and help us increase our impact.

As we learn about an issue, we ask whether we can make a difference with our money and our ability to bring partners together. We get involved only if we believe that governments and businesses will be able to deliver any solutions we might help fund.

Example

Our early learning strategy was born of this kind of intense inquiry. When we realized Washington state was behind the nation in preparing children to thrive in school, we thought we could help bring attention to the problem and help mobilize action to solve it. But first we needed to understand why children were struggling. We drew on the expertise of academics, researchers, financial and policy analysts, early learning centers, nonprofit organizations, parents, and others. These included the Foundation for Early Learning, the Talaris Research Institute, the University of Washington Human Services Policy Center, and others. We also sought the advice of organizations outside of the state, such as the Ounce of Prevention Fund and the Harlem Children’s Zone. We studied international and U.S. research findings from the public and private sectors. This information and collective wisdom helped us shape our strategy.

Develop the strategy and agree on a budget

Bill, Melinda, and Warren help set the broad goals for each of our three main program areas. Once they have identified an area where they want the foundation to work, the relevant grantmaking group—led by a program president—evaluates possible solutions. For each solution, the program considers its cost, the risk associated with it, its long-term viability, and, most importantly its potential impact on people’s lives. Based on this survey of possible approaches, and after extensive discussion, the program identifies a strategy, which includes a budget, the results they hope to achieve, and a plan to measure those results over the short and long term. They present this strategy for approval by Bill and Melinda and CEO Patty Stonesifer.

Example

The foundation’s global health strategy prioritizes diseases and health conditions that cause widespread sickness and death in the developing world yet receive too little attention.

Malaria, which kills more than 2,000 African children every day, is one of our priority diseases. Working with experts and partners, members of our Global Health team crafted an approach to help fight the deadly disease, identifying key gaps in malaria efforts and outlining the cost.

The Global Health team first presented a malaria strategy to Bill, Melinda, and Patty in 2004. Once it had been approved, the team moved on to the next step: making grants that were consistent with that strategy.

Make grants consistent with the strategy

Once we decide on a strategy, we consider grants that will support it.

Our program officers start by asking key questions: Given the strategy we’ve chosen, who are the right partners? What organizations are best suited for the work? How much money is required? How will we measure the effectiveness of the effort? Who can most successfully manage the grant? Who is best qualified to evaluate it?

Once they’ve answered these questions, program officers recommend particular grants. The program presidents have significant authority to make grants that are in line with a previously approved strategy. Especially large grants must be approved by Patty Stonesifer and the very largest by Bill and Melinda.

Most of our grantmaking goes to large intermediary partners—organizations that in turn provide funding and support to those doing the work in the field. This lets us take advantage of the expertise that others already have, and it builds up expertise among people in the field rather than simply on our staff. In our U.S. Program, for example, we make grants to charter management organizations, which use the funds to support groups that are creating successful new schools.

Measure results and learn

We are willing to take risks to address the issues that are important to us, and we recognize that the steps we take—or that our grantees take—may not always be the right ones. That’s why, once we’ve made a grant, we expect the grantee to measure the results. We require our grantees to carefully track and report on their work in the field. We believe constructive feedback improves the quality of the work, so we also turn to outside evaluators, advisors, and experts to help us examine our efforts and give us honest counsel.

Evaluating our work (and our grantees’) is important, and we are always looking for ways to do it more effectively. We seek to share evaluations in various forums, including by circulating them to our partners and posting them on our Web site (see links below). We are building a team of people who specialize in measuring the impact of our grantmaking, and we actively solicit feedback on our efforts from outside experts. In 2006, we published case studies to help shed light on what we’re learning.

We believe these urgent problems belong to all of us collectively. We want to find out what works and why, and then share what we’re learning. The more we can help each other, the better chance we have of finding solutions and getting them to the people who need them the most.

Example

Here are links to some of the evaluations on our website:

  • U.S. Program: Sound Families
  • Global Health: Grantee Progress Report (127 KB PDF)
  • U.S. Program: Education

Adjust strategy

Of course, measuring progress and getting feedback is only useful if you’re willing to act on the results. Once we’ve gathered feedback, our program presidents and CEO decide whether to continue with the existing strategy or to make adjustments. If necessary, they seek approval from Bill and Melinda to change course.

Example

We launched the Washington State Achievers Program in 2001 to improve graduation rates and college-going rates at 16 struggling high schools. In the intervening years, we’ve learned some important lessons through the program that have affected our work nationwide.

The Achievers program has two major components: school redesign and college scholarships. The 16 schools were redesigned from large comprehensive schools to smaller schools where students were enrolled in rigorous classes and got more personal attention from teachers. The program also awards college scholarships to more than 3,800 low-income students from these schools, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. Unfortunately, academic improvement in the Achievers schools has come more slowly than originally hoped.

Through the Achievers program, we learned that redesigning a school puts extraordinary demands on principals and teachers. We learned not to overemphasize size to the exclusion of other improvements, such as the quality of classroom teaching. And we found that we can’t expect schools to take on ambitious improvement initiatives without engaging everyone in the process— students, parents, teachers—and without gaining the support of their districts. These lessons have affected how we work with schools and districts throughout the country, including the Achievers program we launched in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.

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