Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Annual Letter: Things To Learn

Last week, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation published its 2018 annual letter. In their own words, the letter is structured as a series of answers to the "10 Toughest Questions We Get".

This is a brilliantly written document that does a great job providing insights into the work Bill and Melinda are doing with the foundation, as well as outlining the reasons for choosing certain areas to focus on, and the strategies they pursue in each of those.

If you think about it, philanthropy today can, and does, do a great good, but it can also be dangerous if done irresponsibly, given the outsized influence it can often wield on the world, even inadvertently, not to mention that it can be used to specifically promote certain agenda.

In this context, it seems to me incredibly helpful to learn about the worldview and the motivations of the people who lead the largest foundation on the planet. Besides, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been operating for 18 years now, being engaged in multiple areas across the globe. What that means is that even if you don't agree with their stance on certain topics, there might still be a lot to be learned from the approach they are taking, as over the 18 years, they've acquired a huge amount of experience, by trying different things, and figuring out what works and what doesn't.

For those of you who don't have time to go through the entire document, below are some select quotes from the letter that I personally found particularly interesting.


Why don’t you give more in the United States?

(Melinda) Our foundation spends about $500 million a year in the United States, most of it on education. That’s a lot, but it is less than the roughly $4 billion we spend to help developing countries.

We don’t compare different people’s suffering. All suffering is a terrible tragedy. We do, however, assess our ability to help prevent different kinds of suffering. When we studied the global health landscape, we realized that our resources could have a disproportionate impact. We knew we could help save literally millions of lives. So that’s what we’ve tried to do.

Why don’t you give money to fight climate change?

(Bill) In philanthropy, you look for problems that can’t be fixed by the market or governments.

Are you imposing your values on other cultures?

(Bill) On one level, I think the answer is obviously no. The idea that children shouldn’t die of malaria or be malnourished is not just our value. It’s a human value. Parents in every culture want their children to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, though, the person asking this question is raising a deeper issue. It’s not so much a question about what we do, but how we do it. Do we really understand people’s needs? Are we working with people on the ground?

How are President Trump’s policies affecting your foundation’s work?

(Bill) More broadly, the America First worldview concerns me. It’s not that the United States shouldn’t look out for its people. The question is how best to do that. My view is that engaging with the world has proven over time to benefit everyone, including Americans, more than withdrawing does. Even if we measured everything the government did only by how much it helped American citizens, global engagement would still be a smart investment.

Is it fair that you have so much influence?

(Melinda) No. It’s not fair that we have so much wealth when billions of others have so little. And it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people. World leaders tend to take our phone calls and seriously consider what we have to say. Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.

(Bill) There’s another issue at the heart of this question. If we think it’s unfair that we have so much wealth, why don’t we give it all to the government? 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. If a government tries an idea that fails, someone wasn’t doing their job. Whereas if we don’t try some ideas that fail, we’re not doing our jobs.