The Rockefeller Foundation’s Rajiv Shah on How to Tackle the World’s Biggest Challenges

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There’s an endearing scene early in Rajiv Shah’s new book, Big Bets. It’s 2010, and he has just been sworn in, at age 36, as head of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. agency that oversees humanitarian and development aid around the world. Hours later, the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti occurs. As Shah walks into the Oval Office for a meeting on the response, he sees President Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden, backs turned to him and looking out the window. “Are we sure about putting this guy Raj Shah in charge of this?” he overhears Biden say.

Shah forges ahead, working with others inside and outside the government–a lesson in embracing partnerships and one of many chapters in a remarkable career. The son of Indian immigrants (his father practiced English listening to Ronald Reagan speeches), Shah went from medical school to corralling heads of state as a young staffer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and today leads the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s oldest and largest nonprofits. His book, subtitled “How Large-Scale Change Really Happens,” is part memoir and part clarion call for all of us to think more ambitiously–and optimistically–about tackling the planet’s challenges.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

We recently ran a piece by José Andrés, whose activism, like yours as you note in the book, was powerfully shaped in the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He expresses the worry that in many major philanthropic undertakings we are not doing enough to bring in local perspective, not doing enough listening. As you think about big bets, how are you juxtaposing that with the need to listen?

José is a big bettor. During the Haiti earthquake, there was devastation everywhere. His model of bringing in local chefs and local kitchens—in an environment where people otherwise thought, "oh, you should just bring in food from the outside and give it away”—was a tremendous breakthrough. It was a fresh, innovative idea, which is what big bets are based on. It required public-private partnership. It was a USAID/World Central Kitchen collaboration.

Ultimately, we were able to measure the results of that and say, "Look, not only are we feeding people, we're feeding them what they want to eat. It's being produced by local producers. It's helping to restart the local food economy, and it's happening much faster than if we didn't have that model in place. Since then, we've collaborated on taking that model to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, to Ukraine and elsewhere. The point is, people look at humanitarian activity and don't always think of bold, new, innovative ideas that can scale and transform in that manner. Jose's proved it can be done.

You write in the book, "Trust is built on common ground and seeing each other as people." How do you think about trust on these big bets? How do you scale trust?

The most important thing is trusting the people you serve. Then you have to find the common ground and stay open and connected to partners. And measure results and be transparent about it. Last June, we issued an impact report that looked at about $1 billion dollars in expenditure to respond to COVID-19 and to support a just recovery. We tried to be really authentic and accountable to those pieces that worked exceedingly well and some that didn't, and what we learned from that. I think a lot of times in this kind of work, there's a tendency to want to only highlight the things that work and not learn from or talk about or be associated with the things that don't, which is why we try to do that very conscientiously. It's why I wrote a whole chapter about a big glaring failure of mine.

Our values here are accountability, trust, transparency. Another value is optimism. There's so much pessimism out there, and it's so easy to be cynical. I wrote the book to get people, in particular young people, to be more optimistic about what we can achieve together and changing the world if we try. Too often, the cynicism discourages people from engaging, which is the worst possible outcome. We can be much, much, much more ambitious on behalf of humanity and on behalf of justice and on behalf of human dignity.

TIME turned 100 this year. The Rockefeller Foundation is 110. How do you feel about legacy? Is it empowering? Does it hold you back? Are there things you have to let go of?

It's extremely empowering and very special because thanks to the good work of this institution for a very long time, they've built trust in communities around the planet. That allows us to be a platform that really brings people together to solve some of the toughest problems of our time. It has [also] required us to be more conscientious about the need to embrace change. Sometimes a legacy institution can say, "Hey, this has worked for a hundred years, so why should we change?" But our teams here have been really agile and we've pivoted. For example, we became an operational collaborator with the U.S. government in a number of states to expand access to testing at scale at a time when shockingly America didn't have the diagnostic capacity necessary to even understand where COVID was, much less fight it.

You’ve almost doubled the size of the Rockefeller Foundation staff, but it’s still quite small relative to your ambitions and footprint. How does it work to be local and at the same time be making huge scaled bets with 400 people on staff?

The key for us is we try to use philanthropic risk capital to attract other funds. For our recent energy project, we made our largest single grant in our 110-year history, $500 million, with the goal of reaching a billion people who live in poverty with renewable electricity that we think can move their families out of poverty and protect the planet by replacing fossil fuels. In order to make that a globally viable project, we raised an additional $1 billion dollars, from the Bezos Earth Fund and from the IKEA Foundation. Then we raised billions of commercial and quasi-commercial investment commitments on the back of that.

A lot of people I speak to who’ve been involved in global aid for a long time are feeling really frustrated. There's a feeling that some of the big global U.N.-level bets are disconnected from reality and failing to do what’s needed. Is that fair? How broken is the system?

In some instances, that's an absolutely fair critique, and in many instances it's not. Big bets, as I describe them in the book, are really setting bold global goals and then investing in the kinds of innovations that can help achieve them, doing it using usually public-private collaboration. The most important thing is fiercely measuring results with a business-like discipline of quantitative measurement. I learned that when I was at the Gates Foundation, and we said, "O.K., it's wrong that 400,000 kids are dying of rotavirus. Rotavirus vaccine is available to some kids in the United States where no one dies, but is not at all available in poor communities where children are dying. How do we make sure every child on the planet gets every available vaccine to save their life?"

The rigor of measuring who's getting vaccinated and who's not took years to put in place. And it was controversial because we were hiring auditors to go in and check the immunization rolls in [places like] rural Senegal. But the net result of it was that it allows us to say with confidence that over 20 years, the Global Vaccine Alliance has helped immunize 980 million kids and save 16 million lives. Not every large public-private collaboration can have results like that, but it can succeed if we adopt this methodology and if we're rigorous about measuring results.

There's still many aspects of the global aid system that are more public than public-private. Does that need to evolve?

Yes. Certainly on issues like fighting climate change where the gap in funding the climate transition is $3 to $4 trillion a year. You will never get there without massively leveraging private capital. So I think the future is big, bold social-change aspirations, grounded in deep public-private partnership. Some people will be skeptical of working with the private sector, and that's why measuring results is so important. There is too much of just taking a photo and celebrating a commitment without actually measuring outcomes and publishing results.

You write in the book about your efforts to work across the partisan aisle, mistakes you made there and what you learned from them.

A lot of executing big bets requires building these unlikely alliances. I write about efforts, when I was in President Obama's administration, to work with very conservative Republican senators on issues related to climate change and food security in Africa. One of my favorite moments was walking on a farm in Ethiopia with Senator Jim Inhofe, someone who most cable news viewers would consider vehemently anti-climate science. But when we were walking there the farmers were saying, "Look, it's hotter, it's drier. We have less food and we're hungry." Jim is someone who had a deep heart for fighting hunger and for Africa, and was willing to be a great partner to me in helping to establish what became the Global Food Security Act, which was the second largest piece of new global development legislation since PEPFAR [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was passed.

You've got to try to build those bridges. I wrote about, in some cases, praying together with members of Congress and finding common values that can be the basis for overcoming the bipartisanship we see today.

We need more public-sector leaders who appreciate that time spent behind closed doors getting to know people on a personal basis is more valuable than time spent on CNN or Fox News, looking for Twitter followers.

You’ve got a $6 billion endowment, a mission to improve the world, and you're a human being. You see things that tug at your heart but fall outside your areas of focus.

We end up having to say no to far more things than we get to say yes to, because we believe in order to have outsized impact in the few areas we're doing at massive scale, we have to focus and be disciplined. That's probably the hardest part of the job. I get things that I want to do every single day in my inbox from people who are really suffering around the world. I know that we have to stay focused if we really want to move a billion people out of energy poverty, for example. We just do our best to do both what's right and to do it in a way that delivers the best outcomes.

You write about your kids. Every few chapters, there was another child!

That's true.

How do you think about work-life balance with these incredibly demanding roles over the years?

I don't know that I get it right on a day-to-day basis, but Shivam [Mallick Shah] and I made a decision a long time ago that we would try to have careers that were about service, and that it was important to us to include our kids in that mission as appropriate. I've tried to take each kid at a certain age on a visit to see some of our work. That's true whether I was at Gates or USAID or Rockefeller. I feel it's important for young people in particular to understand the way the world really is for billions of people and to be exposed to that in addition to all the exciting things they get exposed to, being fairly fortunate growing up here in the United States. Other than that, it's just hard, because everyone's very busy.

I hope the kids read the book.

I hope so too. They've all indicated they will. We'll see.

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