This year’s annual letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — their 10th such correspondence with the world — takes an unusual approach. Rather than simply touting the organization’s achievements, it answers “10 tough questions that we get asked,” essentially walking into the metaphorical punch offered by critics and observers of the planet’s wealthiest foundation.
That includes queries into the $40 billion foundation’s impact on U.S. education, whether they’re imposing their values on other cultures through global giving, and if it’s fair that they have so much influence due to their tremendous wealth.
The 13-page letter from Bill and Melinda, out today, begins with a defense of their optimistic outlook that the world is getting better, while some might argue that growing climate change, massive refugee crises and uncertainty around the Trump administration suggest otherwise.
Being an optimist “isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better,” the Gateses write. “And that’s what really fuels our optimism.”
The Gates Foundation reports spending about $4.5 billion a year, consisting of $500 million in the United States, primarily on educational programs; and $4 billion towards global health, agriculture and other efforts in developing countries. Throughout the letter, the Gateses address with some humility the evolution of their philanthropic strategies, and Melinda repeatedly raises the importance of women’s empowerment.
In response to the question: “What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?” Bill answers, “A lot, but not as much as either of us would like.”
In terms of education, the Gates Foundation primarily targets high school-related endeavors, and also supports early learning and postsecondary education. The letter recounts lessons learned and missteps, and notes that newer initiatives focus on helping U.S. middle and high schools “develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding” (emphasis theirs) rather than delivering top-down solutions.
In recent interviews with experts on the more general topic of Bill Gates’ philanthropy, he and his foundation are given credit for their mea culpas.
“The field of philanthropy talks a lot about transparency and failure and then doesn’t necessarily do it,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Gates has become more forthcoming about some of their failures.”
The Gateses’ letter also cites their willingness to learn when it comes to international aid and cultural sensitivity.
“We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful — it’s also more effective,” Melinda writes.We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful — it’s also more effective.
The letter raises the question of the foundation’s outsized influence and also asks: “Why are you really giving your money away — what’s in it for you?” The couple acknowledges their tremendous good fortune and an obligation to give back. They agree that it’s unfair that their wealth opens doors closed to others, and acknowledge that sometimes people hesitate to criticize them for fear of losing funding.
In the letter, the Gateses also tout the good their wealth can do.
“If we think it’s unfair that we have so much wealth, why don’t we give it all to the government?” Bill writes. “The answer is that we think there’s always going to be a unique role for foundations. They’re able to take a global view to find the greatest needs, take a long-term approach to solving problems, and manage high-risk projects that governments can’t take on and corporations won’t.”
These views are shared by others in similar positions.
“Many of these philanthropists have no particular interest in challenging the economic status quo or taking on inequality at some structural level or changing the rules that allowed them to get so wealthy,” said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy.
“They do feel like they’d rather give their money away than have it captured by estate taxes,” he said. “Philanthropy is a more high-leverage tool.”
Other top 10 questions include why the foundation gives money to for-profit corporations, why they don’t donate more to U.S. causes, if saving kids’ lives fuels overpopulation and if the couple ever disagrees. There are also more topical issues covered in the letter, including climate change funding and the effect of the Trump administration.
Regarding curbing the release of greenhouse gases, Bill argues that this challenge is better addressed through market-based solutions. In December 2016, he launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a private investment fund that includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other business leaders. The fund has $1 billion to invest in clean energy.Bill & Melinda Gates Live Event
At 9 a.m. PT today, Bill and Melinda Gates are participating in a Q&A with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical “Hamilton.” The 90-minute event, in New York, will be streamed live on Facebook, and viewers can submit questions.
As to President Trump, Bill writes that questions about the U.S. leader and the effect of his policies come up “more often than all the other topics in this letter combined.”
And here the Gateses’ optimistic tone wanes a bit. The letter cites Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid, his “America First” worldview, his lack of respect for women and others, and hit shortcomings as a role model.
“Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with,” Bill writes, “we believe it’s important to work together whenever possible.”
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Mr. and Ms. Gates are badgered about Mr. Trump so often that they made the topic part of the annual letter they published early Tuesday, a digest the couple releases about the philanthropic activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Believed to be the largest in the world, the foundation gave away more than $41 billion from its inception in 2000 through the end of 2016, now spending $4 billion to $5 billion a year to combat malaria, reduce poverty and improve education.
This is the 10th annual letter the Gateses have published, which they’re marking by answering 10 “tough questions” they frequently get. In addition to Mr. Trump, they address topics like why they team up with corporations and whether they’re imposing their values on other cultures.
The first Gates letter was inspired by the annual update the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett writes to shareholders of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. In 2006, Mr. Buffett, a longtime friend of the couple’s, pledged the majority of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, where he is a trustee. In philanthropic circles, the annual Gates letter is read as avidly for tidbits about giving trends as Mr. Buffett’s letter is by investors.
“There have been some interesting tip-offs about where they’re heading or their perspectives on things,” said David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a news site about charitable giving.
While the mood in many parts of the world seems to have darkened, Mr. and Ms. Gates say in their letter that they remain militantly optimistic about global progress.
“The headlines are filled with awful news,” they write in the letter. “Every day brings a different story of political division, violence or natural disaster. Despite the headlines, we see a world that’s getting better.”
They expanded on some of those themes and fielded questions about other topics in the recent interview. It was held at bgC3, a company that oversees many of Mr. Gates’s independent projects, including for-profit investments in clean energy.
Through her own private company, Pivotal Ventures, Ms. Gates has advocated for greater participation by women in STEM fields and other gender equity issues. Pivotal recently helped fund Aspect Ventures, the largest venture capital firm led by women. Not long ago, she moved Pivotal to its own private office near her husband’s.
As one of the founders of the modern tech industry, Mr. Gates is often looked to for technical answers. For instance, while running for president, Mr. Trump floated the idea of asking Mr. Gates to help close “that internet up in some way” to curb communications by terrorists online.
But when asked about the growing criticism that big technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have faced over their role in spreading misinformation, Mr. Gates said he hadn’t “seen great solutions,” though “I’m hopeful they’ll come.”
“The whole tech world should look at these criticisms, look at these effects, you know, try to make sure that without giving up what’s good about that, that we can reduce some of it,” he said.
When asked if the national reckoning over sexual harassment had affected her investments through Pivotal, Ms. Gates said that it hadn’t so far, but that it had encouraged her to use her voice to encourage more women to speak out.
“I want to make it O.K. for women to talk about their real experience,” she said. “I think it’s a long time coming that the sexual harassment stuff worldwide comes out.”
Ms. Gates has made family planning a focus of her work with the foundation. She said the Trump administration’s decision last year to expand a ban prohibiting American aid to any health organizations that provide or discuss abortion in family planning had caused “chaos” in the field — forcing them to stall their work as they figured out how to adhere to the rules.
And in their annual letter, Ms. Gates, 53, is blunt in her view of the way Mr. Trump communicates.
“I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets,” she writes.
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Gates, 62, said he was particularly worried about Mr. Trump’s threats to cut foreign aid, which the Gates Foundation considers critical in the global battle against disease and poverty. He said that he was reassured that Congress had so far resisted the president’s demands to cut aid and that he and his wife had increased their visits to Republican members of Congress to stress the importance of maintaining the aid budget.
“Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with, we believe it’s still important to work together whenever possible,” he writes in the letter. “We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off.”
One of the questions in the letter is about what happens when the two of them disagree. Mr. Gates wrote, “When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic.”
Ms. Gates said they tended to avoid hashing out their disagreements in front of bigger groups at the foundation, saving them for private discussions, which they have on walks.
“Having a little bit of grist in the system is actually a good thing,” she said.Continue reading the main story