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Miguel Veiga-Pestana is the Chief Communications Officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Miguel leads the foundation’s global communications division and is focused on increasing awareness and engagement for priority global poverty, health, and U.S. education issues. Miguel is responsible for overseeing all communications and brand functions, including managing reputation risk and building media partnerships to support independent coverage of priority issues. 

Prior to joining the foundation, Miguel served as Vice-President, Global Sustainability Strategy and External Advocacy at Unilever, where he was responsible for driving global advocacy on key sustainability and business strategy priorities to affect systemic, transformational change. GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Miguel to gain insight on how civil society and business can work better together and the value he puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

Published 26 May 2016


QYou have had the unique privilege of having worked at two remarkable leadership organizations: Unilever and now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Are they similar?

AOn the one hand, you have Unilever, one of the most pre-eminent companies flying the flag for sustainable business models. On the other hand, you have the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is at the forefront of developing new models of philanthropy.

Both organizations benefit from strong leadership. Paul Polman has led from the front at Unilever, while here at the foundation we are indeed fortunate to have two active co-chairs in Bill and Melinda – as well as our CEO, Sue Desmond Hellmann.

The second similarity I see is that both are mission- and purpose-driven organizations where people have the sense that they are not just working to advance their own careers but for something larger and more impactful. In fact, we are both inspired by the new Global Goals to ensure that we live within our planetary boundaries, create a more just and equitable world, and end the scourge of extreme poverty by 2030.

What about some of the differences between the corporate and foundation worlds?

A big difference, of course, is in the fact that one is profit-driven and the other is outcomes/results-driven. Actually, the fiscal discipline that you get from private sector doesn’t apply nearly in same way in the foundation world. The pressure, internally, for being efficient and effective when it comes to spending money comes from the fact that we know that the more money that goes directly to beneficiaries the better. This drives our focus.

One interesting aspect about the Gates Foundation is that we have more flexibility to be innovative in some ways, to take risks and to have more focus on the long-term. Long-termism is difficult to do in business, but Unilever has tried to break that cycle, a change that Paul Polman has pushed hard for.

It is important to mention that here at the Gates Foundation, there is also a slight tension between looking at longer-term results (e.g., eradicating malaria in 20 years) and the belief that if we could accelerate the research and get more partners, more lives could be saved more quickly. This is why we describe ourselves as impatient optimists. We are optimistic that we can make profound positive changes in the world, but we want to accelerate the pace of change. Despite this very complex environment we live in, we have actually made real progress in halving child and maternal deaths, increasing primary education and nutrition. Both Bill and Melinda consistently remind us about these achievements.

How can civil society and business work better together?

Both Unilever and the Gates Foundation have put a huge amount of emphasis on collaboration, for all the right reasons. For whatever you want to do or whatever challenge you want to address, you are still a small cog in the wheel, and if you want to scale you need to have lots of other people and organizations in the value chain. This is true for the Gates Foundation: despite the fact that we are a large donor, the amount of our funding is still tiny compared to the total resources required to address the issues we are focusing on.

Collaboration isn’t something that some people just say. It is core to success. I think what I am learning is that partnership and collaboration are built on a slightly different model in the foundation world. It is built through grant-making and funding, so it has to be more about joint resourcing and mediation. It actually is sometimes more difficult to collaborate in this context than in the business-NGO environment.

What has been a key challenge you have been trying to address organizationally at the Gates Foundation?

An important learning for me when I joined the Gates Foundation was that in a sense it is not dissimilar to the challenges facing Unilever a decade ago. Before the Sustainable Living Plan (SLP) was developed, we had great difficulty in unifying a story across the many disparate brands at Unilever. The SLP helped create a unifying, goal-driven narrative and built a rallying cry across the organization. The challenge was to come up with outcome-driven goals that could unite very different brands like Ben and Jerry’s and Knorr, and create a common purpose to drive performance.

The Gates Foundation, similarly, has lots of different work streams – more than 25, in fact – and each is working on specific issues, from malaria, to financial inclusion, to maternal health, et cetera. The challenge is how to unify all these important work steams under a common set of goals. We have found this to be a significant challenge, and have tried to take the learning from Unilever and develop a story focused on the outcomes, because it is the outcomes that matter.

How are you developing a unified narrative at the Gates Foundation?

Goals are excellent unifiers. The Gates Foundation had a number of goals, but they didn’t ladder up. We now have four missions around empowering people and creating opportunity for women and girls, and these four missions are being used to unify all of our work. Every part of the Foundation finds itself in these larger missions. With the sum being greater than the parts, we are looking to achieve a greater sense of impact.

The Gates Foundation, interestingly, has incredibly high trust amongst our key audiences and stakeholders but our detailed programs have relatively low familiarity. We are now focused on trying to build familiarity, and our four missions provide us with a clear framework for doing so.

What is your strategy to help tell this story to stakeholders?

Well, campaigning is an important aspect of telling our story. So, part of our work is about communicating the importance of these issues, talking about what matters, and telling our story with a more campaign-focused framework, telling the story of infectious disease in ways that connect with people, that are clear, and that lead to the mobilization of effort that is required to create the better world that we are so impatient for.

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