Critique of Gates Foundation’s Organizational Culture Should Be Warning to All Philanthropy

Rachel Schurman, a professor of global studies and sociology at the University of Minnesota, has done the entire philanthropic sector a great service by writing an article published in the December 2018 issue of World Development. Her article, “Micro(soft) managing a ‘green revolution’ for Africa: The new donor culture and international agricultural development,” examines how the organizational culture of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has affected its international Agricultural Development program. Applied to that specific context alone, the piece contains some harsh criticisms. But if applied more broadly, Schurman’s piece is positively scathing.

It should serve as a helpful warning, to Gates and all givers.

“Whiz kids”

Nonprofit Quarterly editor-in-chief Ruth McCambridge writes that Schurman’s research “finds that staff at the Gates Foundation have trouble making effective grants because they are all trying so hard to be the smartest guy in the room.”

Specifically, according to Schurman in the article,

by hiring people who represented the “best and the brightest” . . . and charging them with solving the perceived problems of African agriculture, the Agricultural Development program became populated by individuals who applied their business thinking and analytical skills to “fixing” rural Africa and rural Africans. The foundation’s orientation toward strategic planning, which is a key aspect of this mindset, produced a decontextualized program that abstracted away from farmers’ real agricultural and sociocultural worlds and proffered a set of universal (and universalizing) solutions [emphasis in original].

Schurman also observes, and laments, two other features of Gates’ culture. First, “by immersing bright, high-achieving professionals in an intense workplace run by a powerful and revered leader, the Gates Foundation taught staff to ‘manage up’ (toward Bill Gates) rather than manage down (toward African farmers),” she writes. “This, together with the ‘culture of smartness’ that pervades the Foundation, leads . . . staff to privilege expert knowledge and professional credentials over other kinds of knowledge, including smallholder farmer knowledge, community familiarity, and experiential knowledge.”

Second, “is the foundation’s obsession with having impact on a large scale,” she continues. This compulsion “leads the foundation to privilege big, international organizations that can develop and manage megaprojects” and over-emphasizes

making sure that its grants can be “scaled up,” that is, expanded into new social, biophysical and geographic domains. This often encourages grantees to expand their projects beyond their organizational capacities and into locales where they possess little knowledge and few local connections. At the same time, small, local organizations and individuals that are cognizant of community needs and could offer strong links at the local level, tend not to be supported [emphasis in original].

In other words, Gates’ well-meaning, often highly self-regarding, and always very well-credentialed experts—with degrees from academe and experience in corporations and data-driven management consulting—are missing some fundamental things, and thus maybe making other things worse.

There’s much more, including the drawbacks of thinking such expertise is “applicable to any sector,” the strategic-planning process’s “frequent course corrections,” high staff-turnover rates “represent[ing] a significant loss of experience and knowledge,” and micromanagement of grantees.

In giving, as elsewhere

These drawbacks described by Schurman are all borne of human failings, which can, unfortunately, become institutional ones. They can also be found in big-government central-planning. They could presumably be found in other programs at Gates, as well. And they can certainly be found at other foundations—of all worldviews and of whatever size.

Her service-rendering article should at least be considered a(nother) gentle reminder, though better an ominous admonishment, about the risks of arrogance in philanthropy. Money exacerbates this elitism, of course, and can render grantmaking less effective.

In giving, as elsewhere, these risks can really only be mitigated by humility—both institutional and personal; both on the governance and staff levels; in the “strategic-planning,” program-implementation, and any other processes; and on the part of liberals and conservatives.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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