Stellar Performer: How the Gates Foundation Runs Its Enterprise PMO

Eric_Verzuh_book_cover_2015The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, guided by the belief that every life has equal value, works with partners around the globe in the areas of health, education and poverty. The Foundation issued nearly $4 billion in grants in 2014, and that number grows every year. Approximately 1,200 people work at the Foundation headquarters in Seattle, WA, setting the strategy and interacting with partners in four major program areas1:

  • Global development: Working to help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty;
  • Global health: Harnessing advances in science and technology to save lives in developing countries;
  • The United States division: Improving U.S. high school and postsecondary education and supporting vulnerable children and families in Washington State; and
  • Global policy & advocacy: Building strategic relationships and promoting policies that will help advance the work of the Foundation.

In 2006, Warren Buffett pledged over $30 billion and joined Bill and Melinda Gates as a Trustee of the Foundation. It is now the largest private foundation in the world.

The Foundation is infused with the type of results-oriented culture that is familiar to veterans of the software industry. Stewardship and impact are guiding principles, emphasizing the importance to accomplish as much as possible with the funds available. This focus on results and efficiency, paired with aggressive goals, creates a natural need for enterprise project management.

This article is an excerpt from Eric Verzuh’s latest book, The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, courtesy of The Versatile Company.

In 2012, the Foundation COO recognized the need for a centralized enterprise project management office (EPMO). Employee surveys found that people were increasingly feeling overloaded. Executives could see that the number of projects and programs was growing, and that many of these had dependencies among them. The growing trend in corporate America to have an EPMO seemed appropriate for this business-like non-profit as well2.

EPMO Leader: Change Agent, Visionary, and Project Management Expert

Don Kingsberry joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in July 2013 with the express charter to build an EPMO, work he had done several times before at much larger organizations in the computer, bio-tech/pharmaceutical and consumer products industries.

By choosing Don Kingsberry, the Foundation followed a key success factor for starting an EPMO: Choose a leader who is an expert in project management and is accomplished at leading organizational change. Kingsberry’s previous successes equipped him to quickly assess the work of the Foundation and propose a vision for implementing project and portfolio management standards.

EPMO Role and Scope

The primary purpose of the EPMO is promoting structure and standards for project management and project portfolio management. Most projects, large and small, are embedded in the functions of the organization, so project managers will continue to report into these departments rather than move to the PMO. The staff of five is capable of promoting their desired practices across the enterprise. As with most organizations, however, the EPMO is taking responsibility for some of the larger, most cross-functional projects.

Projects affected by the EPMO are primarily operational, the kind you’d find in any business. The four major program areas accomplish most of their work through external partners, and not every grant is a project.

Over a three year period, the EPMO has set its target to address standardization in how projects are managed, create more rigor in project selection to ensure the right work is happening, and to build the skills and culture of project management across the enterprise.

These are not small goals, and Kingsberry is very aware that his team is changing the way people work, which is always a risk factor. Fortunately, the EPMO enjoys the sponsorship of the Chief Operating Officer and the Chief Financial Officer, another critical success factor for an EPMO in any organization.

Establish Project Management Standards

With decades of project management experience, Kingsberry knew he didn’t need to reinvent the wheel for the Foundation. The standards, as shown in the figure below, are familiar and could easily apply to most organizations. Ask him about the standards and he is quick to point out the four that make the biggest impact.

First he cites the project intake phase as essential. “Why is this project worthwhile? Why are we doing it?”

After intake, he likes the project charter. “There is something about a sponsor’s signature on that document, after the sponsor and project manager have created it together.”

Like many seasoned project managers, Kingsberry values a project plan. He emphasizes that a plan has multiple critical elements: the work breakdown structure, key milestones, a critical path schedule and a baseline.

His fourth favorite shows why he has been effective at building EPMOs in the past. He values organizational change management. “Change management is hugely important. Projects make changes.”

Standards for managing projects include a common definition of what constitutes a project, practical standards for different levels of project complexity and a project life cycle with common deliverables.

The basic definition of a project is drawn from the Project Management Institute: “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” To be subject to project management standards, the work must also meet two or more of the following criteria:

  • Greater than four weeks in duration;
  • Require more than 60 hours of effort;
  • Cost over $25,000;
  • Require more than two people; and/or
  • Have at least 20 individual tasks.

In addition to defining this minimum threshold for applying project management rigor, there are three tiers of projects, each requiring a higher level of oversight. The EPMO established these tiers so that they could take on the biggest, most strategic projects first. Tier 1 projects received their initial attention. These projects have the highest visibility and are the top priorities of the executive leadership team. The project tiers also factored into which projects would be included in the portfolio management activities. Over time, all projects will appear in the project portfolio. Initially, however, only Tier 1 and Tier 2 projects were subject to portfolio scrutiny (which I describe shortly). Tier 2 projects are not as large as Tier 1, but they do tend to be cross-functional. Tier 3 projects are primarily managed within a function or department.


When discussing the standard project lifecycle, Kingsberry makes another point about reducing project risk. “Experience has shown that the larger the project, the greater the risk. So if our projects are big, we break them down and manage them as multiple projects. We try to avoid projects that last multiple years.”

Project Portfolio Management Optimizes Resources and Limits Damage

The EPMO is also adding rigor to project selection. “Once you define what a project is and then gather the inventory of all the projects, the next thing that is apparent is that they are not all equal and must be categorized.”

As with most organization, the trend is that a larger proportion of work is accomplished by projects. That was leading to another common phenomenon, people were becoming overwhelmed. Kingsberry lays out three goals for portfolio management: strategic alignment, prioritization and sequencing. He emphasizes sequencing because some projects are dependent on others, projects share resources, and he wants to avoid drowning parts of the organization in too much change.

Project Selection Criteria and Portfolio Visibility

The EPMO does not make decisions about which projects should be approved. Instead, they promote a consistent project scoring method and facilitate the prioritization discussion.

The table below shows the ten factors that determine the rank of projects in the portfolio. Projects that have completed their Intake phase are scored by their sponsor and project manager. During annual planning and monthly and quarterly reviews, new projects are presented by their sponsor to the executive leadership team. Many projects have merit, but the Foundation is trying to be careful not to overcommit, preferring to focus on better performance of fewer projects.

The portfolio valuation criteria.

Color Portfolio Table Benefits

Color Portfolio Table Risks

Prior to the prioritization meetings, the EPMO team enters the scores into a spreadsheet that produces a portfolio bubble chart, similar to that shown in the figure below. “The big conversations happen about projects in the yellow boxes,” explains Kingsberry. “Can a project’s risk be reduced or its benefits improved?” The ten selection factors can also be weighted, which will change where the projects fall on the grid. It also allows the grid to be sensitive to the goals of top executives, “We can present different portfolio scenarios depending on the current strategic focus.”

Project prioritization bubble chart.


The EPMO also shines a light on organizational change. One of the EPMO dashboards measures the amount of change that different parts of the Foundation will experience as a result of projects. They look at the size of the expected change impact (small, medium or large), when the change is expected to start and end (different from the project start/end dates) and which groups and specific roles will be impacted by the planned changes.

The EPMO actively engages across the organization to help departments do a better job of project management and oversight. EPMO staff facilitates quarterly project reviews for departments and at the top levels in the organization.

Achieving Maximum Impact and Stewardship

There is a sense of awe and deep responsibility for those working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They are the stewards of an immense endowment. The Foundation has demonstrated it can make significant progress on many health and poverty issues. And the work to be done remains enormous.

The team in the Enterprise Project Management Office takes satisfaction in knowing that they play a part in achieving the Foundation’s mission, and that their work increases the impact of every project.


1. The Foundation’s website also provides a wealth of information about what the Foundation has accomplished and its methods of working with partners.

2 This article is based primarily on an interview with Mr. Don Kingsberry, February 2015.



Written by Eric Verzuh
Eric Verzuh, PMP, earned his PMP in 1992. He is the author of the bestselling Fast Forward MBA in Project Management and the PMP® Deep Dive, a better, faster, and more fun exam prep program. You can contact Eric via email at
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  1. Great to see the case on MPUG, I reviewed the book on The Project Corner. People can still win a copy of the book if you are interested:

    Kind regards,
    Erik van Hurck

  2. Excellent article, hope they are also using the EPM tools to do their scoring for the portfolio analysis.

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