The Rise of the Gates Foundation

Bill and Melinda Gates. Photo by: Kjetil Ree

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has arguably become the most powerful charitable institution in the world.

As Michael Edwards, a veteran charity commentator, puts it, the Gates Foundation is  “closer to the best than the worst” in the gamut of private charitable foundations by being more expertly staffed, more focused on problems, more professional and more prepared to change.

“The foundation has brought a new vigour,” Edwards said. “The charity sector can almost disempower itself; be too gloomy about things … Gates offers more of a positive story. He is a role model for other philanthropists, and he is the biggest.”

“Everyone follows the Gates foundation’s lead,” someone at a longer-established charity who prefers not to be named said. “It feels like they’re everywhere. Every conference I go to, they’re there. Every study that comes out, they’re part of. They have the ear of any [national] leadership they want to speak to. Politicians attach themselves to Gates to get PR. Everyone loves to have a meeting with Gates. No institution would refuse.”

The Gates Foundation, according to Seth Berkley, who is the head of the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, has the advantage of speed and flexibility unlike other large bureaucracies. IAVI has secured a USD100 million line of credit from the foundation, apart from grants of USD1.5 million and USD25 million.

“What Gates allowed us to do was go out and search for new ideas and move quickly on them. The old way was to find the new ideas, and then look for a donor to back them,” Berkley said.

However, the Gates Foundation also has its share of critics.

In May, the Lancet published two articles on the foundation, one of which concludes that, “[g]rant-making by the Gates foundation seems to be largely managed through an informal system of personal networks and relationships rather than by a more transparent process based on independent and technical peer review.”

The other article argues that, “[t]he research funding of the Foundation is heavily weighted towards the development of new vaccines and drugs, much of it high risk and even if successful likely to take at least the 20 years which Gates has targeted for halving child mortality.”

The Gates Foundation has tended to finance “a large and costly global health bureaucracy and technocracy” based in the northern hemisphere, Devi Sridhar, a global health specialist at Oxford University, notes in a forthcoming article for the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

The foundation said its grants go to large intermediary partners that offer financing and support for entities working on the ground, often to developing country institutions.

In running the foundation, chief executive officer Jeff Raikes notes that, “[t]here are some real cultural differences between the Gates foundation and Microsoft,” he says. “Some of that’s good and some of that’s not so good. The foundation is in a stage of … maturation. In philanthropy there is kind of a culture of ‘You and I are here to help the world, and so we can’t disagree.’ At Microsoft, people would really throw themselves into the fray. I’m trying to encourage that here.”

Raikes said that the foundation, which awarded some USD2.8 billion in grants in 2008, is not replacing the United Nations, noting that “some people would say we’re a new form of multilateral organisation.”

“The way Gates and his elite staff have chosen to try to [change the world] is by running their charity as a kind of business,” The Guardian says.

About the author

  • Ma. Rizza Leonzon

    As a former staff writer, Rizza focused mainly on business coverage, including key donors such as the Asian Development Bank and AusAID.