For years, Melinda Gates has remained behind the scenes at the Gates Foundation, at $60 billion the largest philanthropic institution endowment in the world.
Gates said that her interest in philanthropic initiatives grew out of her family’s commitment to volunteerism when she was a child. After her husband Bill’s mother died in 1994, she and her husband asked his father to answer the letters they had been receiving from people asking for help, such as a mother pleading for the money for her child to have a kidney transplant. That experience clearly began to prepare them for a broader awareness about fundamental challenges in the world that properly-applied financial resources could help.
When Gates retired from Microsoft in 1996 to have her first child, she and her husband started a small foundation, initially focused on helping girls to learn about technology. Eventually, it became clear to them that they had more work to do, and it eventually morphed into a broader focus on education in American schools, and then on widespread disease. The basic tenet of the foundation: “All lives have equal value.”
So now, at 500 employees, how do they decide where to focus? Gates said that during regular reviews of the most recent research, “…Bill and I go down the list… ‘What are the greatest killers in the world?’” They then juxtapose that list with the top “DALYs,” or disability-adjusted life years, in the world, defining the diseases that debilitate people enough to keep them from running full and productive lives. “We then do a portfolio review of the ‘products’ that we have, against the goals that we set.”
There’s plenty of work to do, even just with children. Gates has an encyclopedic knowledge of the challenges: 10 million die each year under the age of 5, with 4 million alone in the first year of life. And several million a year die from measles, simply because basic vaccines aren’t widely available.
But there’s a lot that can be done. For example, she said that we’re just on the cusp of being able to eradicate polio, only the second time in history that a disease has been completely wiped out. Yet the ultimate work, Gates said, has to be accomplished by governments; There’s only so much that foundations can do – the state of California alone spends $60 billion on education in a single year, the National Institutes of Health $29 billion – so even foundations like Gates’ have to work through public institutions to accomplish change at scale.
Beyond youth mortality, the sheer volume of the problems in the U.S. school system can be paralyzing. There are 49 million children in public schools (and 6 million in private), she said. As the Foundation began digging into the issues, they found that there are many initiatives focusing on Kindergarten through 8th grade. “The thing that nobody seemed to want to tackle,” she said, “were the high school years.”
Over a million kids a year drop out of high school every year – but don’t ask the federal government to tell you who. According to Gates, just getting the government to track numbers about dropouts is daunting. Even if they graduate, “…another million are completely and totally unprepared to go to college,” she said. “These kids have to take remedial math, remedial English at the community college level, before they can ever go to college… Why are we not preparing these kids?” Her answer: We’re stuck in an industrial-age model of education, one designed to mass-produce trained workers for mass production.
So what’s the solution? Three things: Great curriculum, great teachers, and “small learning communities,” groups of 100 to 150 kids who build tighter bonds than are possible in huge, anonymous schools. Where is this working? “In the NY City School system, we’re working with Mayor Bloomberg and with Joel Klein,” she said – the latter of whom led the charge in Microsoft’s antitrust case for the federal government. “Now, people might wonder what we’re doing working so closely with Joel Klein…” But she lauded Klein for his commitment to kids, and for his (and Bloomberg’s) willingness to make hard decisions, like closing big schools and segmenting them into smaller areas that can let kids build their own communities.
The night before, News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch pointed to teachers’ unions as a significant source of the problem with public schools in the U.S. Mossberg asked Gates why. Her answer: You can’t easily move out non-performing teachers. She used the example of a parent who sets high standards for kids, and metes out rewards and consequences to encourage the right decisions and performance. The same is true for teachers – but highly-local school boards and teachers’ unions make independent rules about teacher performance,
Why can’t the Gates Foundation work to change that structure? “Our role is to work on models that work,” she said. “You can’t just have the Gates foundation saying there needs to be a change.”
Does the model work? According to Gates, schools following their model – previously with 31-38% graduation rates – have gone in a few short years to 71% graduation rates.
In audience questioning, one attendee asked why the Foundation wasn’t focusing on problems that would last for one or two hundred years. Aside from the fact that the question lacked much thought – we have plenty of pressing problems today – Gates was gracious, responding that the Foundation was founded with an explicit requirement that all of its funds must be disbursed within a specific time after the two Gates are gone. And a similar requirement guides Warren Buffett’s contribution to the Gates Foundation endowment as well. And she encouraged everyone in the audience to get focused as well – find the thing they care the most about, even at the local level, and get involved.
At the end of the conversation, Walt Mossberg turned to Gates’ role in the Foundation. She said that now that her kids are all in school, she’s increasing her time at the office. What she didn’t mention is that until the past year, she had taken only a backroom role with the organization, letting former CEO Patty Stonesifer and her husband Bill take the forefront. But as chronicled in a January 2008 article in Fortune Magazine, Melinda decided that it was time for her to take a more visible role.
And the world is a better place for it. Melinda Gates is a marvelous and inspiring presence on the stage, an extraordinary person taking on an extraordinary task.