The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is taking several management steps designed to improve its ability to help impoverished people in developing countries and its other beneficiaries.

It is now trying to clarify its strategies and decision making both for its employees and grant recipients, Jeff Raikes, the organization’s chief executive, said in an interview at the foundation’s Washington office.

As part of a discussion about the foundation’s plans for 2010, Mr. Raikes said the institution is trying to improve its internal operations in part because the organization has tripled in staff size in the last four years and because it is dealing with new financial realities.

Like other nonprofit institutions, the foundation’s assets have been on a roller-coaster ride. It ended 2007 with $38-billion, fell to about $30-billion by the close of 2008, and today hovers around $33.5-billion.

Despite the volatility, the foundation has kept its grant making roughly steady at $3.5-billion, which is the amount it will distribute this year.

“The foundation got used to skyrocketing payout and then suddenly you have flat payout,” he said. “You have to figure out, 'Wow, how am I going to get the most out of the money I’ve already committed because I have less new money to commit?’”

Fostering 'Intellectual’ Culture

In June Mr. Raikes announced in the foundation’s annual report he would be surveying the grant maker’s 818 employees and its thousands of grantees about the philanthropy’s operations. (Read The Chronicle’s article about the announcement.)

The feedback has led to some changes.

Responding to staff members’ concerns, the foundation will set up better ways for employees to provide their thoughts about program and management decisions, foster a culture of “intellectual” discussions and collaborations, and establish yearly meetings for Bill and Melinda Gates to discuss with all grant-making officers the foundation’s strategies.

Mr. Raikes, who joined the foundation in 2008 after a long career at Microsoft, said the process has helped teach him about the difference between how businesses operate versus philanthropies.

“My first impression is that there are some unique cultural things that are a bit challenging” in foundations, he said. “People want to be somewhat consensus-driven, but that’s not always easy to do.”

Communicating With Charities

As for charities, Mr. Raikes said by May or June the organization will have a plan for how it can work better with them.

“What do the grantees want? They want clarity in the decision-making process, they want clear communications about our strategies, and they want to make sure they understand the selection process,” he said.

He is considering several ideas for doing this. They include using communications technology to get “real-time feedback” from grantees, creating an “ombudsman” position within the foundation, and surveying nonprofit groups that have had grant requests rejected.

He also said the foundation needs to a hire more employees with diverse work backgrounds, like people who have experience as a grant seeker or who are from developing countries.

“Getting a diverse set of input into to what we’re doing is very important,” he said.

Some philanthropy experts have criticized the Gates foundation for tending to hire people from outside the nonprofit world, especially among its senior leadership team.

Mr. Raikes said the foundation is well-staffed with former charity and foundation officials. But he added, “We can do more to learn from them.”

In all, Mr. Raikes said the Gates foundation does not need to be “reformed.” The changes reflect a continued push to strengthen its operations and the causes it supports: global health, development in Africa and other poor regions of the world, and American education.

“We are about having the most positive impact we can for the people we serve,” he said. “If we can be more effective in terms of our internal environment, if we can be more effective in terms of constructive relationships with the grantees, we will have more impact.”

In addition to discussing foundation operations, Mr. Raikes laid out the group’s philanthropic priorities for 2010.

In health, he said the foundation fund is focused on eradicating polio, developing new approaches to fighting malaria, and preventing childhood deaths with vaccines.

With global-development grant-making, the foundation will continue to help poor people get access to financial services, such as savings accounts, with mobile technology and other tools. Improving sanitation in Africa and other poor parts of the world will also be key.

In America, the Gates fund will maintain its focus on public education, putting an emphasis on finding out what makes a good teacher effective. Mr. Raikes also promoted a new documentary, Waiting for Superman, about the nation’s troubled school systems. Mr. Gates is featured in the film.

Listen to Mr. Raikes discuss the foundation’s 2010 goals.