The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation has a big, possibly the biggest, goal. 

The philanthropic organisation, backed by a $36bn share of Gates’ substantial fortune, exists to raise the human condition. To improve the quality of life for every individual on the planet.

When that’s your goal, where on earth (quite literally) do you focus?

In February I wrote an article about where to start with a digital marketing strategy. Then recently, on a slow Sunday train journey, I read Rolling Stone’s interview with Bill Gates and saw that his answers to questions about the Gates Foundation’s work contain some great lessons for effective strategy.

Lesson one: have a clear, big vision

Gates’ vision is a powerful prediction:

By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.

How’s that for a rallying call?

What vision can you use to steer and inspire the people who’ll help you get there? 

Lesson two: make deliberate choices

When developing strategy you’ll hear a hundred views on what’s important, where the big opportunities are, what needs fixing and what should be done to fix it. And 95% will be valid. But it’s impossible to do everything, so how do you choose where to focus?

The Gates Foundation must be inundated with requests to support worthwhile projects, and the article gives a few clues as to how it’s picked its battles.

To tackle improving the quality of life for everyone on the planet the foundation looks at health inequity, which Gates explains as “why a person from a poor country is so much worse off than somebody from a country that’s well-off”.

The foundation has identified that a key driver of health inequity is infectious diseases, like polio.

The main factors influencing the spread of these diseases are immunisation, education and nutrition. 

So that’s where they’ve focused serious effort, putting over $3 billion towards the work on polio alone.

Gates says:

The majority of the foundation’s money goes on a finite number of things that focus on health inequity. 

Be deliberate in focusing your resources where they’ll have the greatest impact. This means not doing some things that are a good idea, and being comfortable with saying no.

The Gates Foundation is actually very upfront about what it doesn’t fund

Lesson three: use your strengths

Rolling Stone’s interviewer, Jeff Goodell, asks Gates how he decides where to focus his time and energy, to which he responds:

I want to focus on things where I think my experience working on innovation gives me an opportunity to do something unique.

He frequently references how technology is used as a significant tool in the foundation’s efforts.

Gates is tapping into his particular talents. What are the strengths of your organisation that give you an edge over the competition? They should help you determine your digital strategic focus.

Lesson four: understand your environment

Throughout the interview, Gates demonstrates his deep understanding of the context of the issues he’s dealing with and the roles of all the relative players, from the role of politics in hampering polio vaccination programmes:

… it is true that we’d be done in Pakistan if it wasn’t for politics – the intentional spread of misinformation about the vaccine and its benefits, as well as attacks on the people doing the work.

To the challenges of driving action against climate change:

One of the reasons it’s hard is that by the time we see that climate change is really bad, your ability to fix it is extremely limited… the problem is latency. The carbon gets up there, but the heating effect is delayed.

In addition to identifying your relative strengths, make sure you consider the environment in which your strategy will operate – the market, customers, competitors, regulators.

Lesson five: don’t forget the basics

Gates uses satellite maps to estimate population counts and has former nuclear physicists baking cookies to improve nutrition.

But the foundation also focuses on the simple things needed to move people from basic lives to decent lives, like functioning toilets.

In digital the shiny and new can be very appealing but driving value from, for example, iBeacons or Snapchat only works if you’ve also got the necessary foundations and skills. 

train 

When you have a spare hour

And particularly if it’s on a slow train ride, I highly recommend a read of the full article in which Gates talks about a myriad of topics in addition to the foundation, including Microsoft, Steve Jobs, privacy and more.

The foundation website also has a page that describes how it develops strategy, which is in itself a nice guide for strategic thinking.  

Nice work Mr. and Mrs. Gates, and thanks for the pointers!