Chris Elias, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

TITLE: President, Global Development 

FUNDING AREAS: Agricultural development; financial services for the poor; family planning, maternal, newborn and child health; vaccine delivery; water, sanitation and hygiene; and special initiatives

CONTACT: 206-709-3100

IP TAKE: A doctor by training, Elias has spent his career at the intersection of health and economic development. At Gates, Elias oversees roughly $600 million for global development programming annually. Elias and his team make large grants with the capacity to transform health and financial well-being in some of the world's most impoverished communities.

PROFILE: Chris Elias leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's work in international development, making him one of the most moneyed program presidents in all of philanthropy. Gates' global development division alone makes about $600 million in grants per year, more than the entire annual giving at some of the country's largest foundations. Elias' portfolio is broad in scope, and includes projects in the areas of agricultural development; family planning; financial services for the poor; maternal, newborn, and child health; vaccines; and water, sanitation, and hygiene. 

Elias came to Gates in 2011 after more than a decade running PATH, the Seattle-based global health NGO, so he's familiar with overseeing multi-million dollar budgets and international operations. But Elias got his start in public health as a young doctor at a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. While working in a clinic with dirt floors and no electricity, Elias came to the realization that so many health problems he encountered on a daily basis— diarrhea, malnutrition, etc.— were the result of poverty, poor sanitation, political oppression, and other non-medical phenomena greater than anything a single doctor could treat, stating:

I sensed that poverty, poor water and sanitation, the absence of human rights protection, and lack of meaningful livelihoods were much more powerful determinants of health and illness than what I could do in the clinic.

Elias returned to the United States to study public health, focusing on the socio-economic and policy issues that contribute to disease and poverty, rather than on simply the treatment of illness, enrolling at at the University of Washington in Seattle, the school where he is now a professor in its Department of Global Health. Elias devoted decades of his post-grad school career to combating healthcare inequities and addressing their underlying causes in underserved communities in the United States and around the world. All of which eventually led Elias to Gates, that massive international foundation whose assets rival the GDPs of many of the world's countries.

Elias and his team make hundreds of international development grants every year, many of them worth more than $1 million. Gates sets a few geographic restrictions for investment, but Elias stresses that he's most interested in work that will help the poorest people and "innovation that will save lives," a recurring message in his occasional blog posts for Impatient Optimists, the foundation's blog. In one blog post, Elias shared what he believes are the most important inventions since the wheel— "important" because they've led to the greatest good for impoverished and marginalized populations: vaccinations, sanitation systems, the birth control pill, and the Green Revolution. Indeed, these four concepts are recurring themes in Gates' development grantmaking under Elias. The foundation puts immense resources toward making the global economy more equitable through disease prevention, clean water, reproductive health, and agricultural science initiatives.

For a clearer idea of what Gates Foundation grants look like, some recent international development investments include:

  • $5 million over 38 months, to the University of Science and Technology Beijing for sanitation technology and infrastructure improvement work in impoverished communities in Africa and Asia.
  • $2.9 million over 8 months, to Family Health International for clinical trials of contraceptive products with potential to better serve women in the developing world.
  • $1.3 million over 21 months to Yale University for the development of cereal seeds that will improve yields and productivity for small-scale farmers in Africa and South Asia.

The foundation has plenty of resources, but the scope of need in the world is so great that even Gates has to be selective about what projects it funds. So it tends to coach prospective grantees through the application process, rather than filter through unsolicited proposals. Pretty much any NGO can contact Gates about support at any time, and the foundation will invite letters of inquiry from promising organizations and collaborate on proposal development where appropriate. But Gates also regularly posts calls for letters of inquiry in target issue areas on its website.