Monday, January 28, 2013

From The Wall Street Journal: "Bill Gates: My Plan To Fix the World's Biggest Problems"

On January 25, 2013, Bill Gates (founder and former CEO of Microsoft now active, since retirement, with his co-founded Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) wrote the Wall Street Journal's Saturday Essay, My Plan to Fix the World's Biggest Problems, discussing how philanthropy and nonprofit organizations should use outcomes - the actual real results of philanthropic or nonprofit programs and projects - if the intended result for the beneficiary occurred and further data - and use that data (the outcomes) to measure results and then improve upon, increase, or reduce (as the results indicate is needed) the program going forward (while planning for its next iteration).

To quote Gates in his piece, " In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal..."

The Gates Foundation has been criticized in recent years for both their overseas seed distribution to impoverished farmers programs (in both parts of Africa and southeast Asia) and also in their education programs, here at home, in the United States (and by this blog's author on both fronts), to name two.

The problem with the seed is alleged here:
"The problem is that when farmers plant and harvest crops, setting a little aside for next year's seed, people eat, but corporations don't get paid. That problem has been so thoroughly solved in US food production that chemical fertilizers and pesticides create a biological dead zone of hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi, draining much of the continent's richest farmland, empties into it. U.S. law requires the registration all crop varieties, and makes it extraordinarily difficult for farmers to save and plant their own seed year to year without paying royalties to corporations who "own" the genetic code of those crops.

"But until recently in the developing world, farmers still planted, plowed and harvested without paying American agribusiness anything. The first attempt to "monetize" food production took place a generation ago in Southeast Asia and India. Called the "Green Revolution" its public face was a masterpiece of pious poor-washing."

'Poor Washing: The Gates Foundation, & the 'Green Revolution' in Africa

The same was alleged of the Gates Foundation's seed program in southeast Asia.  The Foundation took it on the chin.  The intention, of course, was to assist impoverished farmers.  The outcome was almost furthering the farmers' impoverished state rather than actually helping.  The fact is, the Gates Foundation listened to the accusations, went and looked at their program's actual outcomes (program evaluation or nonprofit self evaluation) and in response to their findings, has since changed their ways.  See Gates Foundation unveils new agricultural policy.

The same can be said of their American education programs.  Critics contended that the Gates Foundation was relying on data from competency tests given to children in the schools they were providing funding to that had been allegedly poor indicators of competency if indicators of anything at all.  In this instance, it wasn't that the results weren't being checked but rather, the method through which the Gates Foundation was checking for results (through the supposedly ineffective competency testing) was lacking if not at all accurate.  Evaluation methods vary from one field or profession to another and how evaluations are created, conducted, and tallied or tabulated (and even how those findings are interpreted) are often changing.  GIS (Geographic Information System) is one example of data collection for organizations running projects in different geographic locations (but the analysis or findings would have to be determined by whomever collects and then interprets the data).  The method of evaluation does not insure the analysis or interpretation.  Another example in the direct assistance fields, such as social work, is to conduct a client survey.  A profession's best practices (and the latest findings from studies on evaluation methods) should be something that a nonprofit's program managers and executive director stay up on the latest, always.

The Gates Foundation listened to its critics and took its lumps.  To see the criticisms and the Gates Foundation's response to them, in part, see The Gates Foundation Engages Its Critics and its links.

I spent most of my nonprofit career (and my formative learning curve in the profession and sector) in Seattle.  I am a proud Seattlite (even if now I am an ex-pat).  I do know that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does some good certainly.  In fact, I co-authored a Gates Foundation grant proposal that was fully funded by the Gates Foundation enabling people with Multiple Sclerosis.  So, I know first-hand of their success stories. 

The criticisms of the Gates Foundation directed the Foundation's programs' managers' attention to alleged issues.  The important point of this is that they paid attention, were willing to see their programs' (and the Foundation's errors), investigate the allegations (truthfully and professionally - by using professional best practices - real data (actual results experienced by the intended beneficiaries)), and then (most importantly) they listened to the findings.  They were truly invested in the outcomes that benefited the beneficiaries based on their needs and input (rather than covering their asses, or ignoring the allegations, and so on).

I am not saying that Bill Gates or the Foundation are without fault, today.  Nor am I saying that anyone has it all figured out (intending to deliver their mission) once they implement evaluation methods (that are sound and proven professional evaluation methods in the program's respective field today).  I am saying that although nonprofits and foundation aim to do good - the intention does not guarantee that good results.  If we don't check whether the beneficiary benefited - how do we know? Similarly, if we aren't checking what outcomes actually occurred via a method that would truly indicate what occurred - what are we doing (and how much money, time, and how much of our nonprofit or foundation's reputation are we wasting)?

Bill Gates' article is worth the read but follow it up with reading professional journals and attending conferences in your organization's professional field, so that you know the latest verified and accepted evaluation method (proven in studies' findings) and continue to be on top of this for the best interest of your nonprofit's beneficiaries and for your organization's ability to achieve (but also measure and correctly determine the findings of) actual outcomes.

1 comment:

Colleen said...

What is the Gates foundation doing in multiple sclerosis research,especially the progressive types, a dilemma largely ignored by all.