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Sam Davidson's blog

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Taking Risks and Finding a Partner

Earlier this week, I read Bill Gates' annual letter that details his foundation's work over the past year. While lengthy, it's worth reading if you're interested in innovation in the nonprofit space, especially as it relates to human services and health.

What struck me most, however, wasn't the bold claims about eradicating polio or malaria, or how teachers are being evaluated in our new digital world. Rather, I was struck by two paragraphs detailing Gates' overall approach.

The first is on page two:

Melinda and I see our foundation's key role as investing in innovations that would not otherwise be funded. This draws not only on our backgrounds in technology but also on the foundation's size and ability to take a long-term view and take large risks on new approaches. Warren Buffett put it well in 2006 when he told us, "Don't just go for safe projects. You can bat a thousand in this game if you want to by doing nothing important. Or you'll bat something less than that if you take on the really tough problems."

Not everyone has a direct line to Warren Buffet, but now we all have an indirect one to him. It's important that we take risks and not play it safe. Often times in nonprofit work, we go for the safe option, not wanting to disappoint donors. Rather, we should take calculated risks, like venture capital firms. We should do our research and shoot for the moon, knowing that not everything has to pay off. Those that do pay off big and save millions of lives (in the Gates Foundation's case). Those that don't allow us to learn what doesn't work and keep moving forward. What risks does your organization take?

The second item of note is on the next page. Gates writes:

Melinda has a particular interest in this area [childhood health] and has several trips planned for 2010 to see these projects. Our working partnership makes it very comfortable for one of us to focus more intently on a particular area but always share what is being learned so we can work together in figuring out how it should fit into the overall strategy. I've always had a strong partner in the work I have done. In the early days of Microsoft it was Paul Allen, and in the later days it was Steve Ballmer. Although some people don't need this kind of partnership, I have found that only when I have a partner who knows my strengths and weaknesses can we together have the confidence to take on projects that take a long time and are high risk. When one of us is being overly pessimistic or optimistic, the other can provide a balanced view.

Here Gates reminds us of the need to not go it alone. His partner in philanthropy - his wife - makes his work better, just as his partners in business do. Partners, whether romantic or platonic or professional, allow us to be our beest selves by reminding us who we are, what we're great at, and what we can't do. While rags-to-riches stories and the life of solopreneurs can be glamorous, they are rarely true. Partnerships move the world forward. Be a part of one.

The nonprofit world is in desperate need of collaboration. Competition exists there, just as it does in the corporate world. But when we begin to share our power and pool our resources, the winners are those that we serve.

Perhaps it's time we asked the "How can I help?" question to our own organizations and took the right risks while building the right partnerships.