SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced she will step down early next year. Her successor, Gates' Chief Strategy Officer Mark Suzman, has the potential to further expand the foundation’s global influence, several development professionals told Devex following the announcement.
In an email to staff, Desmond-Hellmann explained that she and Bill and Melinda Gates have spent recent months discussing the best person to replace her to lead the world’s largest private foundation. They selected 12-year foundation veteran Suzman, president of global policy and advocacy and CSO at the foundation, who will assume the role on Feb.1, 2020.
“Those of you who have had the pleasure of working with Mark know that he leads with level-headed diplomacy, integrity, grace, and good humor under pressure — all qualities needed to steer this great enterprise in a world of increasing complexity and volatility,” she said in an email shared with Devex.
“The Gates Foundation has made a deliberate effort, really under Mark’s leadership in particular, to be a global leader in the conversation around development.”— Alex Thier, former executive director, Overseas Development Institute
Allies, grantees, and former foundation staff told Devex they think Suzman — who is “humbled and hugely excited by the opportunity” to serve as CEO — is a smart choice for the role.
“For them to immediately bring someone in internal is a good thing,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition. “The good news is there’s not a learning curve for where the foundation is, and where it’s able to go.”
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Warren commended Desmond-Hellmann, saying her experience in academia at the University of California San Francisco, in the private sector at the biotechnology company Genentech, and her work on HIV/AIDS and cancer in Uganda, was the perfect combination for the work the foundation does on product development and delivery globally.
But Warren also noted the importance of leverage for the foundation: “As someone who receives grants from the foundation, I can say their greatest value is their voice,” he said. “It’s not that their dollars don’t matter, but their voice matters hugely, and the foundation drives agendas.”
Originally from South Africa, Suzman came to the Gates Foundation from the United Nations, and prior to that he worked as a correspondent for the Financial Times. He joined the foundation in 2007 as director of global development policy and advocacy, became president of global policy and advocacy in 2012, then took on the additional responsibility of chief strategy officer in 2016. Suzman has helped to build the foundation’s global presence and to oversee philanthropic partnerships, government partnerships, and strategic communications.
Desmond-Hellmann, an oncologist by training, brought a highly technical background to her work and oversaw, among other efforts, the creation of the Gates Medical Research Institute, the first nonprofit biotech organization in the world. In her note to staff, Desmond-Hellmann noted some of the highlights from the five and a half years she served as CEO, including her work on poverty and economic mobility in the United States.
Suzman, meanwhile, brings expertise in policy, media, and advocacy, which the foundation will need to extend its reach beyond what it can directly fund with its $50 billion endowment.
“It’s great to have a new CEO that understands the importance of advocacy,” Gabrielle Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of nonprofit Panorama Global, and former director of global program advocacy at the Gates Foundation, told Devex.
She worked with Suzman at the foundation, and said she expects he will put his advocacy background toward Gates’ efforts to “partner with governments and other philanthropists to identify sustainable funding and systems change to reach their goals,” she said.
Over the past decade, the Gates Foundation has taken on a role equivalent to a bilateral donor, said Alex Thier, who stepped down as executive director of the Overseas Development Institute earlier this year. From meeting with world leaders, to advocating for official development assistance, to working on replenishments for global health funds, the contributions the foundation makes to foreign aid extend far beyond its own endowment.
“The Gates Foundation has made a deliberate effort, really under Mark’s leadership in particular, to be a global leader in the conversation around development,” Thier said.
Suzman often joins, or stands in for, foundation co-chairs Bill and Melinda Gates at forums on the future of global development.
“The senior most representation of the foundation, obviously apart from the Gates, on that global policy related side of things has really been him,” Thier said. “And that’s in no way a criticism of Sue. That’s just the role he has played for them. And I would surmise that is going to mean that will increasingly be a big part of the way the foundation engages in the world.”
In September, Suzman joined Bill and Melinda at Goalkeepers, an annual event the Gates Foundation hosts on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly focused on accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.
“In the SDG era, they have become a defining member of that community and that conversation, both because they lead it and because they fund others to do it as well,” he said.
Organizations that have worked with the Gates Foundation on their priorities, including health and agriculture, are now engaging with them on larger questions such as how to achieve the SDGs by 2030. By taking on the CEO role, Suzman might also help to connect the work the Gates Foundation is doing in the U.S. to the SDG agenda, Thier said.
In her email to staff at the Gates Foundation, Desmond-Hellmann said she, Suzman, and Bill and Melinda Gates, will share more details about the transition at an employee gathering on Dec. 17.