Gates Foundation CEO Hopes to Broaden Impact, Simply and Effectively

The new CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to bring a fresh perspective to the world's richest philanthropy and ensure that its investments have a broad impact, the Seattle Times reports.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, who previously served as chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco and as head of drug development at biotech company Genentech, is the first physician and research scientist to lead the Gates Foundation, following a succession of former Microsoft executives who were close friends of Bill and Melinda Gates. That outside perspective is already proving valuable, Desmond-Hellmann told the Times. "What I hope I bring to the foundation...is coming at things from a fresh angle," she said. "I find myself asking a lot of questions, and I think that's an asset."

She is taking the helm of a mature organization with an endowment of nearly $40 billion. Under former CEO Jeff Raikes, the foundation nearly doubled its staff to twelve hundred and ramped up its annual grantmaking to $3.4 billion, while refocusing its efforts on core priorities such as polio eradication, improving women's access to birth control, and helping subsistence farmers in the world's poorest countries. During Raikes' tenure, however, the foundation often was criticized for seeking simple, technological fixes to complex problems and for not sufficiently acknowledging the different political contexts in which much of its work takes place. Eradicating polio, for example, has proved more difficult than expected due to ongoing civil conflict in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, three of the four countries where the disease is endemic.

While Desmond-Hellmann is not planning any major course changes, her top priority, according to the Times, is to ensure that the foundation's investments have a broad impact. "These are really hard problems," she told Humanosphere, a blog maintained by Tom Paulson, a veteran journalist based in Seattle. "The Gates Foundation has signed up to do a lot....I see my job as CEO as helping translate these strategies into reality. I'm going to be really dogged about making sure we have an impact, on how to best accomplish these goals most simply and effectively."

What is needed beyond identifying simple and measurable solutions for tackling poverty and health inequities, said Desmond-Hellmann, is to make such solutions more sustainable by shifting the power of the marketplace  in favor of the poor. "Where capitalism largely fails is as a tool for helping the poor," she said. "Markets have failed the poor, and one of our jobs at the foundation is to really focus on market failures, to find a solution there."

Sandi Doughton. "Tough Bosses No Problem for Gates Foundation’s New CEO." Seattle Times 06/29/2014. Tom Paulson. "New Gates Foundation Chief to Seek Revolutionary Simplicity." Humanosphere 06/30/2014.