A Look Behind The Data

April 14, 2011

This afternoon, on the opening day of the 10th anniversary Global Philanthropy Forum, I had the pleasure of speaking in conversation with Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Among its many tremendous contributions, the Gates Foundation has been an intellectual leader when it comes to measurement and evaluation, or M&E.  But in Jeff’s work, as in the work of all GPF members, it’s not just about the data for data’s sake. It’s about learning. And about using data in creative and powerful ways to ensure continuous improvement.

Jeff brought up the example of Guinea Worm as a model for where we, as philanthropists, have been in global health, where we’re going, and what we need to get there. In just twenty-five years, the world has gone from 3.5 million cases of Guinea Worm to just 1,700 in 2010, in large measure because of the extraordinary work of The Carter Center. This is a tribute to hard and persistent work of many people, including some of the GPF’s members, but also an example of the profound impact that low-tech solutions can have.  The allure and excitement of high tech solutions often lead us to neglect the simple, cost-effective low-tech solution right in front of us.  The dramatic reduction in Guinea Worm has been largely achieved through the provision of public health solutions – safe drinking water provision and behavioral change interventions.

Jeff tells us that more than tracking the numbers, we need to think about what they mean. What does one case of guinea worm represent? What does it mean, day-to-day, for the life of the person affected? For that person’s family?  It’s not simply one life improved or saved. The data we collect can tell this larger story.

While the purpose of M&E is to improve performance and enhance impact, it is not meant to remove risk. But as philanthropists we have the unique privilege of being in a position to take the risks that government and the private sector cannot, or will not.  Failure as a philanthropist is not the failure of a grant or project. Rather, in Jeff’s words, “our failure will be if we don’t learn from those experiences.” THAT is failure. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is guided by this philosophy, as should we be, as engaged, agile, and committed philanthropists.


Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum


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