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Originally published March 16, 2009 at 3:55 PM | Page modified March 16, 2009 at 4:10 PM

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Guest columnist

Gates Foundation should solicit more feedback

The Gates Foundation's generosity and commitment to its many charitable missions is unquestioned. Guest columnist Pablo Eisenberg of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute suggests the Foundation could be even more effective if it expands its advisory boards to include people who are not part of the Gates family or close associates.

Special to The Times

BILL Gates recently issued his annual letter to the American public, in which he discusses the goals, programs and achievements of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The letter commendably calls for other foundations to maintain and even increase their contributions in these troubled financial times. It states that the Gates Foundation will increase its giving by an additional $500 million in 2009.

While Bill's and Melinda's generosity has not been questioned, they and the foundation have been justly criticized for not being very accountable. The annual letter is a step toward greater public accountability. Yet much more needs to be done.

The letter, as well as the foundation's annual report, is a one-way communication. It is not a means by which the Gateses can truly interact with the public and nonprofit communities. Bill Gates seems to recognize this problem, stating in his letter that "We work hard to get lots of feedback."

Each of the foundation's three divisions has a small advisory panel of well-known individuals. The foundation reaches out to a limited number of experts for program recommendations. And Bill's and Melinda's periodic visits to their projects do provide some measure of feedback.

But, in a real sense, much of the feedback seems ceremonial. It is difficult for beneficiaries to be candid or critical with their funders. In such circumstances, gratitude usually trumps candor.

Nor has the media done much to assure public accountability. With few exceptions — The Seattle Times being one — the press has treated the Gateses with kid gloves. Rarely have fawning reporters asked the tough questions about accountability, board composition and foundation investments. By comparison, White House news conferences seem spirited and fierce.

When Charles Piller wrote a two-part series for the The Los Angeles Times in 2007, revealing the discrepancy between the mission statement of the Gates Foundation and the nature of its investments, both Bill Gates and the Foundation's then-CEO, Patty Stonesifer, reacted testily to the criticism, saying that their policy was to maximize profits, not make social statements.

The defensive posture taken by Bill Gates on the few times he has been seriously questioned publicly reflects a person too insulated from the give and take of real discussion and debate. That is not likely to come from staff, carefully selected advisory committees, consultant experts, occasional trips or nonprofits seeking money. What the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation needs is interaction with independent observers, critics of the foundation and nonprofits and their constituencies not begging for grants ... people willing to level with them.

Though Warren Buffett is nominally a trustee, the Gates Foundation board is essentially Bill and Melinda. They claim their decisions are informed by consultants and advisers. Weighing advice from outsiders, however, is not the same thing as having outsiders on the board making decisions with the founders. The decision-making process requires broad perspectives, a wealth of experience and interests beyond family concerns — something Bill and Melinda cannot bring by themselves.

In short, The Gates Foundation would be well-advised to have an enlarged board of four to eight additional members who are not part of the Gates family or their personal advisers and retainers. Such a public board, along with greater and broader consultation, would give the Gates Foundation that minimal measure of public accountability that taxpayers and the public deserve. As a model for other family foundations, it could have an enormous, beneficial impact on our foundation world.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow with the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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