Melinda French Gates has learned [a lot] during 10 years of co-chairing what has become the nation's largest and perhaps most influential philanthropy. "We didn't invent philanthropy or a way of doing it," she said to begin her talk, which focused largely on the mistakes she and her husband have made since starting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Melinda Gates said the foundation's effectiveness is tied to its willingness to take feedback and to learn from its mistakes. Gates told the story of a trip she and her husband, the co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, took to Vietnam last month to learn more about that country's approach to vaccination, since the Southeast Asian nation has one of the best rates of participation in the developing world.
While they were in Vietnam they noticed the small refrigerators used to store medicines were entirely full. A new vaccine the foundation was hoping to test in Vietnam was supposed to be delivered in a large container that would never fit in these small, full refrigerators.
The discovery taught her two lessons -- one immediate and one long-term. First, the Gates Foundation would have to go back to the manufacturer of the new vaccine and have it repackaged in smaller containers. Second, someone needed to develop vaccines that do not require refrigeration.
"We need to take input from people in the field," she said. "They know what works in their community and we need to listen to them."
Vaccine research has taught them to work more closely with the private sector. "Every single day in Africa, 2,000 children die from a disease we know how to treat," Gates said referring to malaria. But the people who need a malaria vaccine can't afford to pay for it and the pharmaceutical companies have not had a financial incentive to create a vaccine because no one in the United States or other developed nations needs one.
She said the Gates Foundation is now working with governments to create incentives for pharmaceutical companies so those vaccines are developed despite the lack of need in the United States. "Helping people in need doesn't have to be an unsound financial strategy," Gates said.
[The Seattle Times]