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