Q&A: Gates Foundation adopts 'yes, and' strategy in response to COVID-19

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Photo by: Marcus Donner / Reuters

NEW YORK — The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for organizations worldwide, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is no exception, according to Robert Rosen, director of philanthropic partnerships. But the crisis has also created new opportunities to “figure out how one can go about galvanizing giving,” he said.

Interactive: Gates Foundation's 2019 funding trends and COVID-19 response

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced over $250 million in funding to support the COVID-19 response. The data suggests the foundation is on track to exceed total grants for 2018 and 2019.

The Gates Foundation has reoriented much of its work to accommodate a new normal in philanthropic and global health needs following the outbreak. Earlier this month, the foundation expanded its coronavirus funding response to more than $250 million, primarily benefiting vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutic treatments.

“Whatever problems we have today because of COVID, even when we move past this crisis, there will be a series of opportunities that philanthropy can play a pivotal role in in addressing. And I hope people recognize that it's better to get engaged sooner rather than later,” Rosen said in a recent phone interview with Devex from his home in Seattle.

Rosen discussed how the pandemic is shaping the foundation’s work and why it is adopting a “yes, and” approach with its immediate and long-term strategies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bill Gates said recently that the foundation is giving COVID-19 its total attention.” What does this mean in practice, and how does this impact other areas of the foundation’s work?

When you have a global pandemic of this type, it touches across all aspects of the foundation's work in one way or another — certainly on the global health side, in terms of everything from diagnostics to therapeutics to vaccines to even thinking about future resiliency.

But it cuts across other health programs as they existed before. It cuts across our work in education. It has represented a shift in how philanthropy needs to think about the current situation and respond to all of the complexity that comes with that decision-making.

That said, it's important to recognize that this is very much a “yes, and” situation in terms of what role we play in addressing the particular crisis and how we think longer-term about the overall impact on our existing programs.

How has the pandemic shifted your day-to-day work and thinking about the foundation? And when did you realize that long-term thinking and reconfiguration of your work was necessary?

This has probably had a couple different phases. In February, it was really thinking about what was taking place in China and what support we could offer.

It very rapidly shifted in early March. It quickly then evolved into thinking about “What are the needs? What are the needs?” We think about this from the mindset of the entire philanthropic ecosystem and what were the needs of implementers in terms of everything being intertwined, having to change physically where they worked, and the tremendous anxiety about the overall global financial situation.

As I look back now, it felt like a pretty rapid adjustment force there. And also, I think that the understanding of the timeline of how this was going to play out — in those early days, I think it was different from what we're experiencing now.

The Gates Foundation has increased its funding, but I know other foundations have also freed up previously allocated money to fund COVID-19 work. Has Gates been doing this type of restructuring?

Yeah. There are different approaches that foundations have implemented to make sure that they are being most helpful in terms of addressing the needs that have arisen. What we recognize is that different partners have different needs. We've been having individual conversations with the grantees to make sure that we're being as responsive as we can be to their particular needs.

Have most of your implementers been able to carry out their standard, everyday work?

In our particular case, it has certainly been more challenging in a number of different ways. Like many other sectors, the philanthropic sector does rely or has relied upon various gatherings and convenings, which suddenly weren't possible. Particularly for grantees, there is the challenge of working with their funders as we're evaluating what their capacity is going forward and to address the immediate needs they face.

“Even when we move past this crisis, there will be a series of opportunities that philanthropy can play a pivotal role in in addressing.”

— Robert Rosen, director of philanthropic partnerships, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

It just added a layer of complexity, and that becomes harder when you can't rely on the more typical experiences that you might have in terms of connection. The last day that was sort of regular business at our office was our annual strategy check-in. And we were ready to chart the course going forward — and then had this abruption.

And what were the main priorities articulated during that last check-in, and to what extent have you had to recalibrate those plans?

For us, it's actually been very consistent, in a way. It's not necessarily the way you would have liked to have it happen, in terms of a crisis forcing an acceleration. But in many ways the crisis has served as both a need and an opportunity to figure out how one can go about galvanizing giving.

When you have a crisis at hand, it inevitably both puts a spotlight on the challenges and perhaps vulnerabilities in the overall ecosystem, but also creates a critically important sense of urgency. In many ways, this has been consistent with accelerating some of what we've been trying to do.

Donors face the challenge of complexity. They want to make sure that whether it's their money, time, or voices, that it's driving toward impact. That comes with a number of challenges of figuring out what issues are particularly compelling to them and where are the areas of greatest need. And then to actually figure out — whether I'm giving $100 or structuring a strategic program to address a key issue — that I'm working on the right strategy with the right set of partners and making sure that it's having impact.

How has the pandemic affected this challenge of identifying the biggest, most impactful areas of need when it comes to giving?

I don't know that it's made it harder, but I think people can feel it in a visceral way because there is such a sense of urgency in terms of response. And the many different needs are all quite compelling.

The challenge I would submit to anybody is: If you feel like doing something, start with Google. But to try and figure out where you can have a great impact with your gift or your time. Be it a donation of $100 or higher, it is a challenging landscape.

Even just the hassles and the complexity that can sometimes happen with “Great, I've got my resource, and I'm ready to move forward and actually make a gift.” There are barriers to actually getting money out the door, whether it's the functionality of a website or other related issues.

Just a few days ago, we put out Power-Of.org, which is a mechanism for donors to give with confidence against areas of great need. It's not telling them what to do. But it's a wonderful starting point for those donors to help navigate the different needs out there and then go forward and give with confidence.

That same complexity and challenge exists for larger foundations and individual donors as well. So, we're not there yet.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.