Every year Bill and Melinda Gates write a newsletter to update the world on The Gates Foundation and its work in the areas of poverty, education and global health. The letters provide excellent examples of how to communicate complex subjects.
The 2017 Annual Gates Foundation Letter —released on Valentine’s day—is a love letter to Warren Buffett who, ten years ago, made the single largest donation to the foundation. “We were speechless,” say the Gates’. “It was the biggest single gift anyone ever gave to anybody for anything.”
The 2017 Annual Gates Foundation Letter contains several important statistics, but it’s the story behind the statistics that make the letter a compelling read.
The letter opens with “Our Favorite Number:” 122 million.
“If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million—the number of children’s lives saved since 1990,” writes Bill Gates. “Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live,” adds Melinda.
On the topic of family planning, the letter highlights the following number: 300 million. It refers to the number of women in the developing world who use modern contraceptives.
In this section Bill acknowledges that Melinda, the storyteller, influenced the way he looks at world health problems. “When we started the foundation, I underestimated the power of contraceptives to lift families out of poverty. I began to see it because Melinda is a great storyteller—and that includes getting the story. When I was still full-time at Microsoft, she’d go out in the field and come back and tell me what she saw,” writes Gates.
“Most of the women I talk to in the field bring up contraceptives,” writes Melinda. “I remember visiting the home of a mother in Niger named Sadi, whose six children were competing for her attention as we talked. She told me, ‘It wouldn’t be fair for me to have another child. I can’t afford to feed the ones I have.’
In a Kenyan slum, I met a young mother named Mary who had a business selling backpacks from scraps of blue-jean fabric. She invited me into her home, where she was sewing and watching her two small children. She used contraceptives because, she said, ‘Life is tough.’ I asked if her husband supported her decision. She said, ‘He knows life is tough, too.’”
Melinda remembers names and stories. The letter includes videos of Melinda’s visits with families in developing villages. Another video shows Bill visiting an African hospital where he observed an autopsy being conducted on a newborn. Through video and photographs, the letter reveals the tragic, but often hopeful, stories behind the numbers.
As Bill suggests, Melinda is the storyteller throughout the letter. On the topic of delivering better training and tools to healthcare workers, Melinda recounts the following story:
“I’ve seen how this saves lives. I was in a hospital in Malawi when a nurse rushed in carrying a newborn girl with asphyxia. She was purple, and I watched the staff resuscitate her with a simple five-dollar bag-and-mask device. Then they laid her on a warmer next to a boy who also had asphyxia. The doctor told me the baby girl would live, but the baby boy had been born on the side of the road, and he was dying. I could see him gasping for air. The memory still breaks my heart.”
Bill and Melinda Gates are optimists, a hallmark of inspiring leaders. They conclude the 2017 Annual Letter on a positive note. The final statistic they highlight is the most ‘magical number’ of all: Zero
“This is the number we’re striving toward every day at the foundation. Zero malaria. Zero TB. Zero HIV. Zero malnutrition. Zero preventable deaths. Zero difference between the health of a poor kid and every other kid…Polio is closest to reaching this magic number. Polio will soon be history. In our lifetimes, malaria will end. No one will die from AIDS. Few people will get TB. Children everywhere will be well nourished. And the death of a child in the developing world will be just as rare as the death of a child in the rich world…
We can’t put a date on these events, and we don’t know the sequence, but we’re confident of one thing: The future will surprise the pessimists.”
The world needs optimists like Bill and Melinda Gates, and it needs communicators like Melinda who bring us the stories behind the numbers.
photo: The Gates Foundation Letter (Melinda Gates)