Bill and Melinda Gates, Community Foundations and the Challenge of Community Leadership

Community foundations across the country strive to serve as community leaders.  (In fact, according to the national standards, the definition of a community foundation includes the phrase “Serving in leadership roles on important community issues”.)  But tackling important issues can be frustrating.  Critical needs – such as workforce training, educational achievement and dealing with the opioid crisis – can, at times, elude long-term solutions.

If you are feeling exasperated by your community leadership efforts, you’re not alone.  Bill and Melinda Gates, who oversee the Gates Foundation, are also aggravated by their lack of progress in dealing with some of the world’s most intractable problems.  The vent their frustration in their most recent annual letter, which you can read here.

Keep in mind that the Gates Foundation has assets in excess of $50 billion, and last year awarded about $6 billion in grants.  Yet Bill and Melinda are discouraged by some areas where they have had little or no success.  Test scores in education don’t seem to budge. More than 2 billion people around the world lack access to a decent toilet.  And the fight to eliminate polio – a goal that looked within reach a decade ago – seems more elusive than ever.

What’s going on here?  Problems tacked by foundations generally fall into one of three categories.  Some – like creating a new vaccine – required clever analysis by a small group of knowledgeable people.  Other issues, such as providing access to sanitary toilets, are solved by mobilizing a large number of people performing specific tasks.  And a third category would be a combination of both.  Dealing with the opioid crisis, for example, may require both a breakthrough solution and a large team of workers to deliver that treatment.

Sometimes a problem might start out in one direction, then veer down a totally unexpected path.  When the Gates Foundation first began to fight malaria, they thought the answer was a more effective vaccination.  Turns out that wider use of mosquito netting over beds provided much of the solution.

To be sure, your community foundation will want to address matters that arouse a heartfelt desire by local leaders to make their town a better place.  The Gates Foundation reasserts that foundations have their best chance of success if they have “a maniacal focus on drawing in the best talent and measuring results”.

As a leader in your community, you have a birds-eye view of the landscape, and that helps you to understand how you can position your foundation to address compelling community needs.  Whether the issues you address require ingenuity or mobilization, a passion to solve an important problem goes a long way.  “If you want to improve the world,” Bill Gates once wrote, “you need something to be mad about”.