The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave away $2.5 billion last year, but its chief executive acknowledged Wednesday that the foundation still needs to improve the way it interacts with those who receive its funds.

Share story

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave away $2.5 billion last year, but its chief executive acknowledged Wednesday that the foundation still needs to improve the way it interacts with those who receive its funds.

“We have some work to do to build more productive grantee relationships,” CEO Jeff Raikes wrote in a letter released with the foundation’s annual report. Raikes, a former Microsoft executive who became head of the foundation three years ago, referred to a 2009 survey of its grantees by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

A team at the foundation spent almost a year analyzing the results and is working on making improvements, he said.

Among the findings, said Greg Shaw, senior adviser for strategic partnerships, were “reports of senior grantee people who worry about whether they can attract the right staff to work on a Gates Foundation grant or even keep people on a Gates Foundation grant because they sense that the quality of the interaction, the clarity of communications, the openness to feedback isn’t always there.”

The reports offered a window into some of the challenges of operating the world’s largest private foundation, which has tripled its staff to 957 employees since 2006.

The foundation provides money for programs but doesn’t carry out the work on the ground. It relies on grantees and partners around the world to help achieve its mission. Raikes said feedback from grantees would become part of annual performance reviews for foundation employees.

Every year, the foundation’s 26 strategies, ranging from agricultural development to polio to U.S. education, are reviewed and adjusted, which employees have complained contributes to a chaotic work environment.

Raikes did not address internal issues, but he highlighted a “refresh” of the agricultural-development program recently to focus more tightly on crops that are important staples for the poor.

Among the positive results Raikes noted was the introduction of a new meningitis vaccine in Africa. That required an elaborate partnership including the local nonprofit PATH, a Dutch biotech company, an Indian pharmaceutical manufacturer and dozens of African governments.

The foundation paid out about $2.5 billion in grants in 2010, compared with $3 billion in 2009. The difference is the result of extending the payout period into 2011 to give its staff more flexibility with funds.

Employee matching gifts increased from $3 million to $4 million.

Grants to U.S. programs, primarily for education, decreased from $488 million to $340 million, moving from about 16 percent of total spending to 15 percent.

The foundation reported $37.4 billion in assets at the end of 2010. It ended 2009 with about $34 billion, after its assets dipped below $30 billion in 2008.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com