“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” According to Ms Martha Choe, former Chief Adminstration Officer of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), this African proverb has helped shape the Foundation’s mission to deliver “catalytic philanthropy”, or philanthropy that serves as a game changer by removing the cause of suffering.
Ms Choe was speaking at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Greater Good Series event titled “What I learned at the Gates Foundation”. The event was chaired by Ms Euleen Goh, Rector of the University Scholars Programme Residential College at NUS University Town.
Ms Choe shared her key learnings from her time at BMGF, from the philanthropic, organisational and personal perspectives. She shared that the Foundation set out to identify the greatest areas of need as well as those where they could make the greatest impact. As such, they chose to focus on four key areas: Global Health, Global Development, Global Policy and Advocacy; and a United States Programme.
The Foundation understands that it must differentiate itself from being a charity and deliver catalytic philanthropy. For example, no sum will ever be considered sufficient enough to treat HIV AIDS. However, if you invest in Research and Development and discover a vaccine, you can change lives forever and reduce the amount of money required for treatment.
The Foundation also recognises the importance of partnerships in delivering their goals. This can be in the form of influencing government policy – for example, convincing governments to maintain their Overseas Development Aid contributions during times of financial crisis as this aid has a huge impact on the reduction of poverty – or through partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry – such as putting in place Intellectual Property (IP) agreements that allow the company to maintain the IP for a vaccine on the condition they give it away for free or at a minimal cost. It is also critical to work closely with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as they know the local communities and universities as they are hotbeds for research and development. Obtaining feedback from grantees is also critical.
Being a risk taker and a risk funder are also fundamental to success. Ms Choe shared that Bill Gates claims he will be happy if 10 percent of the projects he backs deliver the potential they promised and prove to be game changers. The Foundation also understands the value of data in determining decision making and measuring success.
From a personal viewpoint, Ms Choe shared that the time she spent at the BMCF taught her the necessary skills to work within the “white space” of a start-up organisation which is constantly evolving. She also learnt the value of driving growth and change by empowering people who are smarter than her.
She concluded her talk by saying that now, as she is at the stage of her career where she is being “rewired”, she is learning from those around her and contemplating the future. She shared that she was honoured to be talking to a room of people who have played an important role in shaping Singapore over the last 50 years and she looks forward to following the country’s success over the next half a century.
The NUS Greater Good Series features talks by leading minds on topics related to philanthropy. These include generosity, giving and service to the community, as well as leadership, personal well-being and mental resilience. The Series aims to raise awareness of philanthropy and its impact on society. The Series was made possible thanks to a generous gift from Newsman Realty Pte Ltd.
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