In the wealth management business, many money managers write quarterly or annual letters to their investors. Far from simple boilerplate memos, these letters are read closely by investors and seen as important sources of knowledge.
Philanthropy has a little bit of this dynamic, but not much. For the most part, foundation annual reports are ignored and seen as a compliance or PR document, not a source of wisdom. This is understandable since foundations do not have “shareholders” to which they need to report. However, while foundation CEOs may not need to write robust letters, doing so may be an opportunity to communicate with and influence stakeholders and other grantmakers.
Bill Gates’ annual letter – which he started at the suggestion of Warren Buffett, whose own annual letter to investors is voraciously read and reported on by the media – seems to have emerged as a good example of how grantmakers can use the format to communicate with and influence stakeholders.
I first wrote about Bill Gates’ letter and the influence of Warren Buffett the day before his first letter came out in 2009. At the time I speculated that Gates’ letter might emerge over time as a new standard for philanthropic leaders. I don’t think that Gates’ letter yet ranks up with Buffett’s, but I do think it is evolving and hope to see others follow his lead.
This year’s letter focuses on the opportunity that Gates’ sees to eradicate polio worldwide. This would represent only the second time a disease had been totally erased (with smallpox being the other one). Instead of simply reviewing the Gates Foundation’s activities, the letter makes a case for governments and other funders to join the polio eradication cause. Rather than just viewing a “win” as limited to polio itself, Gates’ argues that beating polio will “energize the field of global health by showing that investments in health lead to amazing victories.”
In addition to the letter, the Gates Foundation website features a video of Gates discussing the points in the letter. However, it is a video found in a blog post written by Gates just before the letter came out that really steals the show.
From a communications standpoint, this video is a home run. In under four minutes, the core message of Gates’ 24 page letter is illustrated powerfully. If Gates is serious about using his letter to influence others (and I think he is), then moving beyond the print letter to videos like these, that are actually likely to be viewed by policymakers and other foundation leaders, should be core to his strategy.