Associate Program Officer | Gates Foundation
What do you do as an Associate Program Officer for Gates Foundation?
I work on a team called Strategic Planning and Engagement, which plans and executes engagements for our top leadership, so they, in turn can advance our global priorities. So we’re a team helping leaders make the best use of their time and voice in order to achieve our goals.
An example would be goals related to Family Planning. We’re ramping up to make sure the aims of the FP2020 partnership are met: that 120 million additional women and girls can access quality family planning information, services and modern contraceptives by 2020. So when we think about leadership time and voice in 2017, we know that engagements that drive this agenda – securing the rights of women and girls to decide whether, when and how many children they want to have – will be critical drivers.
In addition to planning, my team helps “get the show on the road” – sorts out briefings, does the trip planning, travels on leadership engagements and so on.
What do you like best about your role?
I love the bird’s eye view of everything the Foundation does, and the combination of strategic planning and hands-on work. The Foundation works on such a range of goals – from ending polio through improving nutrition to strengthening access to financial services for the poor – and getting to think about how we can help advance the mission of the incredible individuals at the helm of this organization to get the work done is a gift.
Seeing the effect of our collaborations and investments up close is the most rewarding. Earlier this year I was part of our delegation to the AIDS Conference in Durban, and being at major global conferences like that can be a mix of inspiring and disillusioning. We still have a situation where nearly 37 million people live with HIV worldwide, and only around half of them know they do. The world has made great strides in prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and the number of new cases has dropped in many places, but we run the risk of rebound: The largest generation in history is now entering the age where people are most at risk of infection.
Tackling it requires doubling down on the big picture work of R&D and innovation, vaccine development, scale and efficiency of delivery and so on, but it also requires us to dive deep into the social, behavioural and contextual that keep risk high in practice even when tools are available in principle. Seeing that our partnerships and policy work can help move the needle on both parts of that equation is really encouraging. It helps connect my small piece of the puzzle with the big picture of what we’re trying to achieve – in this case an AIDS-free world. That helps keep passion and purpose levels high even when you’re dealing with the nitty-gritty.
Why did you decide to join the Gates Foundation?
At the most fundamental level, it is an organization that’s purpose aligns with my own. Growing up in the affluent cocoon that is my native Norway, I had formative experiences early on that sort of “lit the spark” – made me angry about the randomness of inequity, and conscious of our collective responsibility to tackle inequality from all angles. I always knew I’d work in global development in some shape or form, just not whether I’d find the most meaning and impact at the UN, in an NGO, a sustainable business or philanthropy. A head-hunter once told me the early part of my resume looked like a “schizophrenic Mother Theresa”, and while that definitely was not intended as a compliment, it is quite indicative of my approach in my 20s: trying out different models of impact to see what worked. Having transitioned between sectors has become a source of strength now.
The Foundation's mission is very close to my heart, both in terms of the impact we're aiming to have and the culture and organization we're trying to build. That latter point is key. I’ve worked in places where I was very passionate about our potential impact, but where our set-up was not conducive to achieving that impact – it’s untenable in the long run. Right out of university, I assumed I could work with any manager, team or organizational culture as long as the mission of the organization was on point. Sort of “keep your eyes on the prize, the rest is noise”. Obviously it quickly becomes apparent that these factors are inextricably linked. When I talk to young people who want to get into international development or humanitarian work now, I encourage them to explore not only the topics that excite them, but also the types of people they want to be around, the culture they want to work in, the leaders they want to learn from. At other non-profits, I was frequently told that I was “too impatient” or “too deadline-driven” for the development sector. So when the foundation describes itself as a bunch of “impatient optimists”, that resonates with me!
A lot of disillusionment can be born out of inhabiting the gap between the impact you should be having, and the impact you are able to have with the operational, financial, political or cultural parameters you work within. I felt that gap quite acutely when working as a consultant for the UN in Iran and Lebanon, for example. You have to look for the sweet spot in the Venn diagram that combines your organization’s vision and reality - and I’ve found it at the foundation.
What makes working for the Foundation different?
The first is being able to take on risks other can’t or won’t. One of the paradoxical aspects of the development sector is that you’re trying to fix these complex, deeply rooted, seemingly intractable global challenges, and you’re often having to operate in a short term, unpredictable way – with annual funding cycles vulnerable to sudden policy shifts. I love working for an organization that can be a sustainable, long-term source of funding, and can invest in endeavours where the risk of failure – and potential reward – is higher.
Another aspect is the rigorous approach to data and evaluation. In the past, as a fundraiser and communicator dealing directly with governments and private donors, I often struggled to build a solid case for investment because the design, monitoring and evaluation of programs was not strong enough. Your messaging is only as convincing as the insights that shape them – and I often had to challenge overblown claims being made in attempts to secure funding, which is disappointing and ultimately unethical. For a sector whose bottom line is all about positive effects on people’s lives, we still struggle with weak methods to measure that effect. So as someone whose job is now far removed from making program investments, it gives me peace of mind to work in a place that views data and evaluation as core to how we operate, while giving program staff enough flexibility to choose the method that fits what they’re trying to achieve.
The bigger piece for me has to do with the type of organization we are at this moment in time. The UN General Assembly happened in September, and we’re one year into the Sustainable Development Goals era – which people describe on a spectrum between boldly ambitious and naively optimistic. What’s exciting about global goals, however lofty they may seem, is their rallying mechanism – and there’s great momentum now with a large range of players to tackle poverty and inequality. But in parallel we’re also seeing continued scepticism and misinformation around development and aid spending. I think we have a particular role to play in collaborating with partner countries to “fight the good fight” and keep development ambitions high, and that’s exciting.
How did you join the Gates Foundation?
My route here seems serendipitous, but it’s also part of a longer trajectory. Funnily enough, when I packed up my Oslo apartment to move to Seattle for this job in 2015, I found a 10-year plan I’d written while en route to Iran in 2006, 24 years old. I’d never looked at it since. One of the points? “Get a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”. It’s weird to look at in retrospect, especially because this was relatively early in the Foundation’s history, right around the time of Warren Buffett’s incredibly generous gift (valued at around $31 billion back then) to its work, which really ramped up activities globally. It worked out obviously, so perhaps I should write more goals down!
I started as a consultant, working on our engagements in Norway with the Foundation’s Europe & Middle East Office, which manages donor government relations in the region. I initially took it on while working in public affairs at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and when I left for another job I decided to set up my own side-gig consultancy to keep working on it in my spare time. I just loved it too much to stop, because it allowed me to connect my 12 years of working and studying international development abroad with my knowledge of the Norwegian media and policy landscape.
I worked on a few leadership trips to Norway, met more people from the Seattle headquarters, including my now manager, and was lucky enough to transition here three years later.
You probably get asked this all the time: if you had one piece of advice to give to people who would like to join the Gates Foundation, what would it be?
There are of course many answers to that question depending on what part of the Foundation you’re most interested in. Some roles are highly specialized, require deep technical expertise and years of dedicating yourself to a particular cause. My friend and colleague Mike is a good example – he has “Malaria Delenda Est” (“malaria must be destroyed”) tattooed on his forearm, in homage to the vision laid out by the late Alan Magill, our former Malaria director. I admire that sort of single-minded vision, a sharply defined raison d’etre. Depth of experience is of course invaluable for that kind of program role.
If I was going to tattoo my mission statement anywhere, I’d need more than an arm – I’m in more of a generalist role where people draw on a combination of policy, media, management or consulting experience. What I think is true of both sides of the spectrum between specialist and generalist roles, is that people who thrive here are the ones who can be both strategic and operational. We try to run a lean operation with good stewardship of our incredible $39.6 billion endowment, so people should be happy to take on tasks across the board to get work done.
What is the most important thing you've learned in your career?
That the research really is right: people who work on major and seemingly depressing social challenges are the happiest.
What are you most proud of in your career?
What immediately comes to mind is Haiti, which ironically is a place I've never been to. When the earthquake happened in 2010, I was in grad-school in Boston. I was interested in the intersection of communication, technology and humanitarian action.
Right after the earthquake hit, a group of volunteers at my school, in collaboration with Ushahidi, set up an open-source crisis map platform for Haitians to report what they needed with their mobile phones. Back in 2010 this was ground-breaking, because although the humanitarian sector knew people with access to phones meant a power shift – you’re moving away from institutions defining “ground truth” based on their own often limited needs assessments and toward a direct mechanism for people to self-report - they were not sure what to do with that data. You’re moving from scarcity to abundance of information, and that can be daunting.
Within a few days of the earthquake, our group of volunteers – led by my inimitable grad school colleague Patrick Meier, an expert on humanitarian technology and innovation – had set up a platform where Haitians could self-report where they were and what they needed. We drowned in messages, as around 40,000 SMS came through in the first few weeks after we collaborated with Haitian mobile companies to reach out to customers across the country. People would text us in Haitian Creole, and our quickly evolving and amazing online community of crisis mappers – most of whom had never actually met each other – would translate the messages into English, search up people’s coordinates via online maps and feed the information to responders on the ground in Haiti.
Beyond the volunteers we trained, the wider tech community rallied. For example, it quickly became apparent that Google Maps was not accurate enough to produce exact coordinates – Port au Prince was not properly mapped. I remember getting messages of urgent medical cases or people trapped beneath rubble, and frantically searching for their exact location on Google without result. So colleagues at OpenStreetMaps rapidly crowdsourced a new map of Haiti based on satellite imagery. I’d be searching for a street on their maps and not finding it – then 5 minutes later it would be there, because someone, somewhere in the world was building it real time, meaning we could get the exact coordinates for people in need conveyed via Skype to Search & Rescue teams in Haiti.
There’s something very humbling and surreal about working around the clock in a Boston basement with a bunch of people who have never been to Haiti, but are able to take messages like “we are a family of four, our daughter is critically injured, we’re trapped beneath our house at this address” – and in a few minutes, have that information translated, geo-located, mapped and fed to responders who shortly thereafter are able to pull those people out of the rubble. It was incredible to see the power of online organizing that close, people outside of an established organizational structure being able to produce the most comprehensive map of needs and resources in a way that traditional responders could use to save lives. I have this recollection of running on what was probably my tenth Dunkin Donut coffee of the night, and the team receiving an e-mail from the US Marine Corps saying they relied directly on our data to “put aid and assistance directly on the target”, telling us to keep going because they had “hundreds of stories” of lives being saved as a direct result of our maps. Reports like that propelled us forward. So I’m very proud of being a part of Ushahidi Haiti because of how tangible and immediate the results were, and how it became a bit of a game changer for the humanitarian sector in terms of crowdsourcing, use of mobile data and thinking about online volunteering.