What We All Can Learn from the 2020 Gates Letter
by Allison Kooser
In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates are swinging for the fences.
Spurred on by advice from Warren Buffet years ago, the Gates Foundation has long been a leader in risk-taking for the greater good. They have made big bets and invested in projects that seemed impossible. In so many ways, they have served as an example for the global development community—yes, drawing our attention to key focus areas, but more importantly, showing us how to think about the challenges that surround us.
The lessons learned from The Foundation’s work extend far beyond their personal areas of interest—each of us has something to learn from their insights, regardless of whether our work centers on health, education, climate change, gender, or something else entirely.
Today, 86 percent of children around the world receive basic immunizations. That’s more than ever before. But reaching the last 14 percent is going to be much harder than reaching the first 86 percent. The children in this group are some of the most marginalized children in the world."Bill and Melinda Gates
The Gates Foundation has led the world in global health—demonstrating the lifesaving ability of vaccines and moving us extremely close to the eradication of several major diseases.
But now they face the hard part: the last mile.
At Opportunity, we have experienced this same challenge. Reaching those who have historically been left behind—the ones who are the most remote, the most excluded, and the most ignored—is both the most critical and the hardest population to serve. It’s why we have doubled down on regions that other organizations have left.
For Bill and Melinda, the goal is 100% of children vaccinated. For us, it’s zero extreme poverty. We’re both in the home stretch—and we can’t stop now.
Our lesson learned: don’t stop at 86%. Keep going, even (especially) when it’s hard.
The reality is that in the fight against HIV, biomedical interventions alone will never be enough. Our response also needs to reflect what matters to people, what’s keeping them from seeking prevention and treatment services, and why the tools that prove effective in clinical trials don’t always make a difference in the context of their everyday lives.”Bill and Melinda Gates
As the Gates Foundation has fought HIV/AIDS, they have seen incredible successes. Antiretroviral medications mean that HIV is no longer a death sentence; new preventative treatments effectively protect against HIV transmission.
But Bill and Melinda also learned a lesson that we have seen in our work time and again: there is no silver bullet.
Addressing every big challenge—whether it’s HIV or poverty or education or hunger—requires solutions that serve people. This means that even the best technical tool, lab-proven medicine, or highly touted economic model is useless if it doesn’t serve the actual needs of actual people in a specific (and complicated) cultural context.
For us, that has led us to local staff and extensive training. Building economic tools and resources for people living in extreme poverty is only half the battle. The other half is personal training that equips, empowers, and motivates people to actually make use of the solutions in front of them.
Our lesson learned: solutions must be human-centric—and training is absolutely essential.
The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater.”Bill and Melinda Gates
One thing we love about the Gates Foundation is they aren’t afraid to admit when they fail.
In their efforts to improve access to and efficacy of education in the United States, they have run into a number of dead ends. For a variety of reasons, this particular challenge has been much harder than anticipated.
We get that.
So often, a project doesn’t go the way we planned. We pilot a new initiative and don’t see the anticipated results. A task turns out to be far more complex than originally imagined.
For the Gates Foundation, these failures haven’t been conclusions, they’ve been drivers to try something new. Because they believe that education is critical, they will keep trying until they find solutions that actually move the needle for students.
Our lesson learned: a particular solution may not work, but that doesn’t mean you give up. If the problem matters, then it’s worth trying and failing and trying again.
But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned about education after 20 years, it’s that scaling solutions is difficult. Much of our early work in education seemed to hit a ceiling. Once projects expanded to reach hundreds of thousands of students, we stopped seeing the results we hoped for.“It became clear to us that scaling in education doesn’t mean getting the same solution out to everyone. Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach.”Bill and Melinda Gates
In Opportunity’s own global initiatives, we ran into the same challenge the Gates Foundation is seeing domestically. Solutions have the most impact at scale, but just because something worked as a pilot doesn’t mean that it will have the same efficacy when spread across a country, a continent, or the world.
Unsurprisingly, Uganda is different from Colombia, and Colombia is different from India.
Cracking the nut of scale is what will allow us to drop costs, improve data, and, most critically, reach more people. But doing so requires customization and an awareness of each particular market.
Put simply, there probably isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a solution.
Our lesson learned: scaling a proven solution is the goal, but it’s not as simple as rolling out a blanket answer. To be effective, it must be personal.
Each one of these women represents millions more. And what makes their stories even harder to bear is the knowledge that, unless we take action, they are stories that are destined to repeat themselves. Because if there’s one thing the world has learned over these last 25 years, it’s that these problems are not going away on their own.”Bill and Melinda Gates
In Melinda Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift, she reflects on the particular challenges facing women and girls around the world. It’s an issue that is close to her heart—and one that we at Opportunity care deeply about, as well.
We know that, when educated and empowered, women are some of the most powerful change-agents in the fight against global poverty.
We also know what Melinda notes in the letter: “The data is unequivocal: No matter where in the world you are born, your life will be harder if you are born a girl.”
It’s a global truth regardless of whether you were born in Mozambique or Mumbai or Michigan. And it’s about time we changed this reality.
So what do we do?
Well, for one thing, we don’t ignore it. We face the reality head-on and dive into the numbers of what could be if we made things like education, economic opportunity, training, financial decision-making, family planning, and later marriages more available to girls.
And when we realize the potential that we have at our fingertips, we act.
It won’t be easy. In most cases, we’re swimming against a centuries-long current and challenging the long-established status quo. But just because a problem is extremely common—and extremely hard to upend—doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Our lesson learned: Big problems require big solutions. Doing nothing isn’t an option.
At its best, philanthropy takes risks that governments can’t and corporations won’t. Governments need to focus most of their resources on scaling proven solutions.“Businesses have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. But foundations like ours have the freedom to test out ideas that might not otherwise get tried, some of which may lead to breakthroughs.”Bill and Melinda Gates
The possibility in front of a foundation like Bill and Melinda’s (or an organization like Opportunity) is enormous. As independent entities that care deeply about the world and the people in it, we have the opportunity to change the story.
We can—and must—take risks.
We can—and must—look into the hardest, most complicated challenges.
We can—and must—take action.
And in the words of Warren Buffet, we can—and must—swing for the fences.
This is our opportunity, and this is our call.
While the Gates are swinging big on global health, domestic education, climate change, and gender, Opportunity is making bets on global education, agricultural development, economic inclusion, and extreme poverty.
Our particular goals are different, but our process is the same: to go big on the things that matter. To be risky and bold, because that is what leads to transformation. To believe that with innovative thought, iterative testing, impatient optimism, and support from an incredible global community, we really can make a difference.
Our lesson learned: solving the world’s big challenges is worth the risk. It’s worth the effort. It’s worth the big swing.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.