Takeaway From Bill and Melinda’s Chicken-Gate: Dialogue is Key

charity, bill, melinda, gates, grant, foundation, dialogue

You’d have to be “cooped” up to miss the “feathers” Bill Gates ruffled in his “fowl” up a few week’s ago (that’s it for the puns, I promise).

Gates announced he’s donating chickens, in partnership with Heifer International, in an effort to combat poverty. No one is sure how, or why, but Bolivia was believed to be an intended beneficiary. And upon finding this out, Bolivia said under no uncertain terms did they want his damn chickens.

Most of the press has focused on “what” Gates chose to gift. I’m more intrigued by the “how.” It’s a small distinction but made all the difference here.

From this burning rubble of snafu comes an amazing lesson for us service providers, advocates and philanthropists. Dialogue has to be a pillar of our engagement with the charitable sector. And there are specific aspects of dialogue we must remain conscious of; three of which I’ll run through.


Dialogue and Our Tone

Ever heard, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” It’s a maxim for a reason. Our tone makes all the difference in how others receive and respond to us.

In particular, this quote from Gates’ announcement stuck out to me:

“If you were living on $2 a day, what would you do to improve your life?

That’s a real question for the nearly 1 billion people living in extreme poverty today. There’s no single right answer, of course, and poverty looks different in different places. But through my work with the foundation, I’ve met many people in poor countries who raise chickens, and I have learned a lot about the ins and outs of owning these birds. (As a city boy from Seattle, I had a lot to learn!) It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.

In fact, if I were in their shoes, that’s what I would do—I would raise chickens.”

In a heroic attempt to empathize, Gates misses how patronizing this sounds coming from someone who can purchase small countries. That last sentence changes the entire tone of his communication.

A tone of reverence, a tone of humility, a tone of learning; one can’t help but wonder if taking any these as an approach would have endeared his gift. Turning his post from a manifesto into a real opportunity to educate and connect.


Dialogue and Our Delivery

While grocery shopping, you ever have check-out price check something you’d rather the world not know?

Well, I can’t speak definitively, but wonder if Bolivia felt this way last week. Except chickens were their check-out line. You have to admit, this isn’t an illustrious list to be on. Ostensibly, being associated with this project comes with labels and preconceived notions.

Though well-meaning, it’s not hard to see why someone would take umbrage at being connected with such an announcement. And that’s particularly true if they find out through media coverage. Reminding us how important delivery and timing are. Especially where our relationship will play out in public.

Pay attention to how you frame, package and ultimately relay information. After all, how we communicate says a lot more about our true feelings than any words we say. Don’t undermine your message by failing to be empathic to how someone might take your delivery. Which absolutely happened here in the way the news was delivered.


Dialogue and Active Listening

I applaud Gates’ use of data. I’ve always been a fan of the Foundation’s focus on accumulating, and actively using, data in its projects. But data can never replace listening and asking questions.

A glaring absence in Gates’ announcement was the use of question marks. There was one (metaphorical) question at the very beginning, and it was purely for dramatic effect. Other than that, there was no solicitation for thoughts. No general call for advice or appeal for interpretation or insights.

Not to say this didn’t happen in the background, I’m sure it did to some extent. But Gates’ celebrity status and reach presents a phenomenal opportunity to receive feedback. From some pretty amazing people. Plus, if the point of posting was to amass buy-in, you actually have to let people “buy-in.” Give them some means of making a contribution.

A few more question marks would turn Gate’s post from a proclamation into an invitation. An invitation to learn more and an invitation to get involved. And a few more questions would support his comment towards the end of the post where he says, “ It sounds funny, but I mean it when I say that I am excited about chickens.” Being inquisitive communicates interest and excitement. As it currently reads, the post sounds more like he’s made a decision, regardless of what the new data, beneficiaries or community at large want.


What’s That About Hindsight?

Admittedly, this is all hindsight. Observations made retrospectively. Nevertheless, by breaking it down we see confirmation of a universally held, but often forgotten, tenet. We can’t do true good in a vacuum. Whether we lend support through professional services, money, or chickens Bill’s announcement serves as a great lesson on approach.

To that end, what I love about Bolivia’s response is the dual purpose it serves. On the one hand, it’s a good reminder of the nuances with engaging in charitable work. On the other, we saw the value in encouraging honest and raw feedback from beneficiaries and recipients. Sometimes, we need them to say, “Keep your stinkin chickens” and we need to be ready to listen.







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