“Helping women helps the world” Kate James of the Gates Foundation on targeting your core causes, communicating effectively and the future of philanthropy

Kate James
Kate James

Kate JamesAs you’d expect from the Chief Communications Officer of the Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation on earth, Kate James gives a good talk. Given that she was also Senior VP on Corporate Communications for Citibank during the financial crisis and you begin to understand the true extent of her persuasive powers.

The $36bn Gates Foundation may dwarf most charitable organisations but James still grapples with similar challenges to those of smaller causes – sustaining engagement, persuading decision-makers and building effective communication strategies. Here she explains to us why women are at the core of the Foundation’s aims, how to persuade people to care and what the future of the Foundation will look like…

Kate James

Hi Kate, in your recent talk at DLD, you claimed that women were at the core of much of the Foundation’s work – what did you mean?

When you think of a farmer, who do you think of? Most likely a man working the land. But the bulk of smallholder farmers that we and our partners are trying to help are women. And a woman farmer is likely to be up to 30 per cent more productive than her male counterpart.

For so many of the issues that we work on, women are absolutely at the heart of the solution. It’s the women, who if they have the opportunity and the funds, who are the drivers to put children through school, to get them vaccinated, that focus on how to bring the family out of poverty. There’s a whole ripple effect – if you invest in women, the impact is for the whole family and the broader community.

family planning – Rwanda

How does that support for women manifest itself? What are the biggest issues?

If a woman in the developing world can space her kids every three years then she can reduce child mortality by up to 25 per cent. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter of all girls drop out of school due to unintended pregnancy. But we know that if they do complete an education they are twice as likely to send their own children through school.

Melinda Gates is a huge champion of women and girls and she’s announced a commitment to family planning for the next 30 years. Last July we got together and persuaded the UK and German governments to make a huge commitment to that cause, to provide access to family planning services for another 120 million women by 2020. It’s a big challenge, but we tend to choose pretty big challenges.


What about closer to home? Are the issues more difficult to address because they’re more about attitude adjustment than aid?

Our big focus in the US is on education. How do you create an equal start, so that your education is not dependent on your ZIP code? You only have to look across governments across UK and the number of women who are at cabinet level and who are great role models in tech to realise that we have a long way to go even in the west, let alone in developing countries.

Has the rise of the “Mom bloggers” shaped your social media strategy?

Social media creates a huge new opportunity for us. We actively try to galvanise this network of influential “Mom bloggers” in the US on global issues, such as vaccinations and newborn health. 

When I came in to Gates three and a half years ago, to our shame, we didn’t even have a blog. There were big gaps in our capability and our understanding of the social media opportunity. We now live in a 24-7 media environment – it’s not enough to just understand the US media market, we have to understand the global market.

A lot of the work that we are still doing is about engaging government decision makers. It’s the UK, the US, France and Germany who make the biggest contributions. But how you engage these decision-makers has changed massively. The new generation of influencers are not the ones who are immediately around government or who are writing columns in the Telegraph or the Guardian. You are seeing a whole new breed of citizen journalists who have enormous influence and we need to engage with them.


What other influences are informing future strategy? 

We’re working with Catapult, a crowdfunding platform for women and girls and what they are doing is really inspirational.

Data also provides a huge opportunity. Partners such as dosomething.org who are very targeted at that 14-18 year old group engaged on social issues are really smart at data-driven thinking, which is not that surprising given that they have Reid Hoffman sitting as their chair. 

They have super low-cost content – no video, mostly images, and they’ll test like crazy. If they are doing a bullying campaign, they’ll run it using eight photographs and they’ll see which ones gains that extra 1,000 signatures.

That ability to test in real-time is what we will hopefully all get smarter at. We’ll get a better understanding of the audience that we are trying to reach and be able to communicate with them more effectively. 

Given the foundation’s background, does technological advancement make up a big part of your strategy?

It’s really important, but it’s not a big diver. When technology helps our causes then we will integrate it. For instance, financial services for the poor, facilitating microfinance.

Mobile technology is important in some really challenging countries, as mobile usage is growing exponentially, so this makes for behavioural change. Traditionally, if there was a mobile phone in the household it would be with the man. So we look at ways on how do you engage the man… and empower the woman.

You have a massive endowment – are there still challenges for such a well-funded organisation?

There’s an apathy – people feel that these issues are really large – we tackle things that take decades rather than weeks or years to fix – and tough and they don’t see enough of the progress. So we face some fundamental challenges concerning the perception of development. If you look at corporate campaigns – such as the Dove Real Beauty campaign – we want to make the same level of emotional connection with our work. To build real communities that scale, with sustained engagement in the issue we care about… for the decades to come. 

Images via Gates Foundation and Catapault