You Can Change the World: How to Get Started
  • Architects of Change

09/22/09 | Patty Stonesifer | 10 Comments

Patty Stonesifer, Chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution

In the 13 years I spent starting and leading the Gates Foundation, I saw hundreds of enormous problems – some right here at home in Seattle and Los Angeles, and some far away in Bangalore, in Botswana, and in countless communities around the world. 

The pain and devastation left by AIDS, poverty, poor education, unequal rights, tyrannical or unrepresentative government and other maladies was easy to identify. But harder to put a finger on was…”Why?”  Why did these big problems still exist? Why wasn’t more being done to solve them?

In thousands of hours of listening and learning I came to believe that the biggest problem wasn’t severe poverty or disease. No, the biggest problem was our failure, individually—you, me, our neighbors—to take seriously our shared responsibility to act, today, to change the problems we see. 

You can’t change everything. I can’t change everything.  Even Bill Gates can’t change everything. But that is no reason to allow ourselves the luxury of inaction.

We do care. So why don’t we act? I think the answer is simple: We either don’t know where to start, or we don’t believe that what we can do – as one person or even as a small group – can really make a difference.  

The truth is, each of us can make a huge difference. Probably one of the best parts of working in philanthropy was the opportunity to see how one person could make a lasting impact on the world from the ground up.

Paul Farmer, an American doctor and anthropologist, co-founded Partners in Health, an organization that delivers life saving medicines to the poor in Haiti. Paul combined his heart for the poor with his medical training to create a new avenue of hope. His work has now grown to include programs in Peru, Russia, and parts of Africa.

Paul’s work has translated into millions of lives saved. But no less heroic is the commitment of the individual grandmother who walks miles in India with her grandchildren to make sure they are vaccinated to help stop the cycle of disease in her family.

Here’s another example from the Northwest: Back in the mid-90s Trish Millines Dziko and Jill Hull Dziko were walking their dogs around Lake Washington when they realized they both shared an interest in helping kids of color in their neighborhood. Jill focused her energy on education, and Trish was passionate about introducing more kids to technology. Their shared interests eventually led them to create Technology Access Foundation, which today provides a mix of afterschool and middle through high school programs for thousands of minority students around Seattle.

These individuals have little in common except one important shared trait: Each understood that they had to start – somewhere – with what they had to make a difference.

So I want to share some of the things I learned from them with you.  Because when I first wanted to make my own contribution, I didn’t know where to start, either. But they and thousands like them showed me the way. I often encourage my friends with the words of one of the greatest teachers of all, Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

If we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves.  

Starting with ourselves means doing some self inventory. Here’s a way to begin – analyze and answer three questions:

  1. What do I value most? (Whether education, universal health care, or something else.)
  2. What is the gap between today’s reality and the value I hold most dear – and why?
  3. What issue can I work on that could be the “bridge” between the world we have and the world I want?

Next, think carefully about how you can use your money, time and voice to make an impact on this issue.

  • How can I use my money on this issue? Consider a range of options – personal giving is certainly part of it, but so are our spending habits, the companies we choose to support, or harnessing our entrepreneurial skills for others.
  • How can I use my time on this issue? Is there an hour or two in your week that could benefit others? What about how we spend our time learning or reading? Is there a way to design a vacation that has both pleasure and purpose?
  • How can I use my voice on this issue? This is perhaps our most valuable asset, and yet we often neglect its power. How can our voice impact our family, our friends, groups, how our media covers an issue? What about our vote?

The biggest problem in the world is that we – you, me, our neighbors, our coworkers – don’t make full use of what we have to help others.  We have what we need to build the world we want.  But we’re wasting it.  That's the biggest problem in the world.  How do we solve it?   

We solve it by beginning.

Now start doing it.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I woke and saw that life was duty
I acted – and behold – duty was joy.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Patty Stonesifer is the former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She now serves as a senior advisor to the foundation and is the chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution.

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  • The coverage on this event has been truly inspiring. Perhaps this will likewise inspire others:

    Posted by kleethe1andonly, 28 October 2009.

  • I liked the intelligent way Ms.Stonesifer expressed the need for people to get involved. BINGO on paragraph five! I think most people want to help or contribute, but honestly don't know where to start. Well, I recommend a great book that gives someone just that's called So, You're Not Mother Teresa. I think it's great because I wrote it but more than that the whole point of writing it was because I was clueless when it came to knowing what to do or how to help others in need. It gives over 500 specific ideas for specific life situations. It helps you narrow down what you can do with the time and resources you have. The book is just re ently published and can be picked up at any bookstore, however go to my website for easy ordering or just wanting more info. If we can get the message out to encourage one more person to act on their desire to love and help another in need just think of the collective goodness that those selfless acts generate on a greater scale. I have loved my own discovery into the world of what Mother Teresa called, just serving one person at a time!

    Posted by Terri, 15 October 2009.

  • I know it all starts with one person. Think of all the things that exist that wouldn't have without one person. Non Profits and causes all begin this way. I have a video talk show, The jessICAREctor Show, where real people share life experiences in order to make a difference and change the world. Its' distributed online, so go to to share your story, because your story can make a difference to others. Think of how a story you heard has affected your life, where it helped you learn about a topic or feel you were not alone. Sharing your experience can only help another person in his/her life, so share your story today at, because as my name, jessICAREctor, states, I CARE. Help me help others one story at a time.

    Posted by Jessica Rector, 8 October 2009.

  • I can certainly relate to this: Our women's group (for personal enrichment) had invited Gil Garcetti as speaker in 02/2008. He spoke about West Africa and he dire need for safe water. As a group, we were touched. The following day emails were flying, calls were made - and a smaller group of women decided to "do something". We thought perhaps we'd raise funds for one well - but really didn't know how we would go about raising so much money (we are just regular people). Somehow, with our founder Barbara Goldberg's energy and our commitment to follow though on this, over the past 18 months we have created a fledgling organization (still all volunteer!), have sent 6 women at their own
    expense to Niger, made a video, created literature, come up with a signature gift with donation, built a website and presented before different audiences. BEST of all, we have raised funds for over 20 wells in rural villages in Niger! It has been like a miracle - somehow one thing after another comes our way.
    And this October we will be at the Women's Conference reaching an even broader audience. Water is Life - and we want to help create a better life for as many villagers as possible.

    Posted by Karola Kristina, 7 October 2009.

  • It is often difficult for a person to make change on their own. Sometimes it's because they don't know where to start and sometimes it's because they can't get their cause known enough to get the help they need to make inroads.
    Perhaps the answer is to create local networks where communities can gather people who are willing to examine what needs to be done both in their locality and elsewhere and then they can put their heads together to problem solve and then put the solutions into action.
    I am trying to get people all over the planet to do just this. By forming I am giving others ideas and concepts which they can use to create employment, help make a flourishing local economy and have flow on effects in healthcare, education and more...
    The concept is simple and could (and should) be used in every community in every country.
    If you want to know more log on to I believe this is the way of the future.
    Positive people power can help to shape a new world!

    Posted by alterquest, 1 October 2009.

  • It's interesting to read.

    Posted by accastellano, 30 September 2009.

  • I am so glad i have come across this post! I have started with a small NGO i registered this year. It is so difficult to find good mentors who aren't offended by the efforts of a 'younger version'! Please take a look at the link if you have time and offer any advice you can.


    Posted by Tonisha Tagoe, 30 September 2009.

  • Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Watch is not that much working well as it was before, still crime people find ways to create disaster for us..!!

    Posted by dinoflok7, 28 September 2009.

  • Thanks for that post.

    And just to add another source of inspiration. Check out NYT Columnist Nicholas Kristof's book, "Half the Sky" which documents worldwide human rights abuses against women -- but offers very uplifting stories of how women can find empowerment. Final chapters offers specific things we ALL can do.

    Yes. And let us think of others who have not the freedoms we enjoy...

    Posted by Dr. Maura, 24 September 2009.

  • I can really relate to this. From just an idea the Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Watch is now a leader in crime prevention and disaster preparedness.

    Posted by Tracy HB, 24 September 2009.