Newsmaker: Kate James, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Thanks to the CCO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the comms function's effectiveness is catching up to the organization's global philanthropic impact.

Since joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in January 2010, CCO Kate James has orchestrated a major reorganization in the philanthropic group's communications structure - one that represented a fundamental change in its approach. The restructuring moved communications out of program segments and into a more centralized structure and is beefing up global communications resources at the foundation, which has about 1,000 employees and grant commitments to date totaling $25 billion-plus worldwide.

A major challenge from the start is what James calls "prioritization of use of voice" and making sure communications were aligned.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CCO (Seattle)

Citibank, SVP, global comms (New York)

Standard Chartered Bank. Group head of public affairs, 2004-07; group head of public affairs & strategy, 2007-08 (New York)

GlaxoSmithKline, VP of external affairs (UK)

Another driver revolved around talent. Having communications split between different programs and only a small central group based at the foundation's Seattle headquarters made it hard for top talent to see a long-term career path. The new structure also lends itself to better talent retention.

"The way we have restructured ourselves makes us a much more flexible resource," explains James. "That means if we have a big push for one of our priority areas, we can put the whole comms machine behind it. In the past, because of the siloed approach, it would have been a much more limited resource."

The new structure worked well in a January push around polio and vaccines. The team leveraged Bill Gates' speech at Davos to gain support for a vaccine program and the release of his annual letter, a personal appraisal of the foundation's efforts, to build momentum around its goal of eradicating polio.

"By being able to prioritize our voice against polio the whole month of January, we were able to keep momentum and see message penetration throughout the month," says James. "The restructuring is a big opportunity. It's not without challenges, but it is beginning to pay off."

Post-restructure, key groups are stakeholder communications and external communications, which includes employee and grantee interface; public inquiry interface and community; and the brands and innovation group, which looks at content generation and distribution - media partnerships sits within that.

"We have key strategy leads, so if you are in vaccines you have one interface as a strategy lead who is able to pull in resources across those three big engines," says James.

Organization-wide support
The importance of communications extends throughout the organization, she adds.

"Having two co-chairs in Bill and Melinda Gates who are absolutely passionate about communications drives a very communications-centric culture," says James.

All foundation initiatives are overseen by the management committee, which sits down for a day every month and is made up of foundation executives, including program leaders such as Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the global development program, James, and her manager, foundation CEO Jeff Raikes, who chairs the committee.

"Kate's expertise at managing large teams to harness the voice of global, multifaceted organizations has helped expand our efforts to share what we learn and support the work of our grantees and partners," says Raikes.

Another priority for the foundation is to broaden its audience from a relatively small group of DC-based policy-makers. The plan is to engage on a broader, more global level and evolve the message from one of information distribution to more engagement.

More aggressive use of analytics to measure the effectiveness of initiatives has helped allocate resources more effectively. One insight garnered from improved analytics was that while the same number of people were going to the foundation's website as were going to Facebook, increasingly the website was viewed as a job-searching tool and Facebook was the place to find out about programs.

"The goal over the next six to nine months," says James, "has to be to get punchier about content, have greater use of video, and much tighter sound bites than we've historically had."

Equally important is finding the most effective way to deliver that message. Considering the foundation's global reach, those platforms vary widely. In India, for example, print media is key to outreach and its importance is actually rising. In parts of Africa, however, radio is the best way to reach audiences with the use of mobile and texting gaining more traction.

"At the start of August we launched our new blog and designed the format to be completely tablet friendly," says James. "Twelve months ago, that would not have been a priority."

Seventy-five percent of the foundation's work is overseas, but until recently its physical presence in international markets had been relatively small. The foundation has an office in DC and only last year established a regional office in London. The role of offices in Beijing and Delhi has evolved from global health outposts focused on programmatic work on the ground into regional offices that also provide communication and advocacy support.

The international ramp-up also included adding personnel with more global experience, including former BBC executive Jeremy Hillman, who was named external communications director last May. Other additions include Chris Williams, who became the foundation's first press secretary in February.

Building stronger alliances is another goal. The organization just entered into a three- year partnership with FC Barcelona, one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world, to leverage its huge number of loyal fans in an effort designed to eradicate polio and raise awareness about the importance of vaccines.

Media partnerships

As part of its media partnership program in late 2010, the Gates Foundation gave ABC News a $1.5 million grant to expand global healthcare coverage. The program has donated $50 million to various outlets over the last decade.

"The pressure on media organizations' budgets has resulted in a significant decline in coverage of development issues across the board," says James.

Foreign correspondents are spread thin and covering overseas events such as the Chilean miner story can wipe out a news outlet's budget.

"The goal is to ensure that in the development space there are strong, robust stories from on the ground and to make sure they are evidence- based," she adds.

Seeing the results firsthand
James' passion for her work is clear. She cherishes the opportunity to be in the field and see the results of foundation programs.

She recounts a trip to Kenya in June where she visited a farmer whose crop yield tripled as a result of being given lime to use on the soil. He was able to rebuild his home, for the first time he needed a store to sell his excess crops, and he put his sons into secondary education. The foundation's efforts caused a ripple effect in the community by also reviving the construction and banking business.

"It always strikes me how a very simple intervention can have an enormous impact on people's lives and especially future generations," says James. "To have even a small role in making this happen is really worthwhile."

Prior to joining the foundation in January 2010, James served as SVP of global corporate communications for Citibank. She has also held executive roles at Standard Chartered Bank and GlaxoSmithKline.

James' biggest adjustment from the corporate sector was that "you don't have the marketplace signals working in philanthropy, so you have to enforce some of the disciplines the marketplace would yourself," she explains. A private sector ethos runs through the foundation with a strong focus on evidenced-based analytics and results driven by its leadership, including Bill and Melinda Gates and CEO Raikes who also came from Microsoft.

James spends significant time on hiring the best people and travels frequently as she builds a global communications network. PRWeek spoke to James during her visit to the London office, where during her downtime she was hoping to get in a quick visit to Goodwood Racecourse and put down a bet. How good is she at picking the winners?

"I'm pretty good, but I don't know that I can give up the day job," she jokes.

Even if her horse did win big, it is clear that James' passion and commitment for the foundation and the work it does will keep her in the race for a long time to come.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in