Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

1337256000000.cached_0Melinda Gates had no desire to attend the Ursuline Academy of Dallas, the all-girls Catholic high school from which she graduated in 1982. “I railed against my parents for not sending me to the best academic school in town,” she recalled the other day, at a Washington event. But Gates now feels grateful for her Catholic education.

The nuns, she says, taught her that all lives have equal value–the radical guiding principle and oft-repeated mantra of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As the world’s biggest philanthropy, the Gates Foundation has since its inception in 2000 given away $36.7 billion — billion! — to promote global health and global development and to improve education in the US.

Gates co-chairs the foundation with her husband, Bill, and has shaped it from the very start. She was interviewed about philanthropy the other day by Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on charitable giving. I was intrigued during the interview by how much of her worldview and thus the work of the foundation appears to have been shaped by her Catholic faith.

“You and I as Roman Catholics believe in a preference for the poor,” Brooks remarked, at one point.

“Yes” she agreed, readily.

Catholic social doctrine, in that regard, prefigures effective altruism–arguing that it’s better to serve the poorest of the poor than to donate money to renovate a concert hall or build a new student center and dining hall at my well-endowed alma mater.

Still, Melinda Gates practices her own brand of Catholicism, as so many Catholics do. In 2012, she broke publicly with the church’s opposition to artificial birth control when the Gates Foundation launched a massive global campaign to expand reproductive rights for women. For that, she has been harshly criticized by conservative Catholics.

Why does this matter? The Gates Foundation, after all, has grown into a vast global enterprise, with nearly 1,400 employees, so the influence of the founders has waned. Yet the more I’ve learned about the foundation, the more I’m struck by the ways it embodies the values and interests of Bill and Melinda Gates. This shouldn’t be surprising–it’s their money, after all — but it’s nevertheless worth noting.

A commitment to the disadvantaged, unapologetic support for capitalism, an almost religious belief in the power of science and innovation, an insistence on being driven by data and evidence–these are values shared by Bill and Melinda Gates, and they have become part of the DNA of the foundation.

Whether this is good for the world depends on whether you share their values and priorities. (Disclosure: I do, for the most part.) But it’s an  example of the way the billionaire class is able to exercise immense and mostly unchecked power through philanthropy, a criticism that has been thrown at the Gates’ by, among others, Linsey McGoey in her book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.

A trip to Africa

In the AEI interview, which you can watch here, Gates said she and Bill decided to start a foundation during a three-week trip to Africa, at a time when they were engaged, filling out a marriage questionnaire from the church and preparing for their future. Both were raised by parents who were deeply committed to community service, she said, and this was their first extended exposure to extreme poverty:

We were really, really touched by the people. We kept saying, how can this be? People here are still living in huts with no water and no electricity. They are building a fire at night. It didn’t make sense to us.

If the decision to focus the foundation on the poor came from the heart, logic soon took over. (Like Bill, Melinda Gates is a bit of a geek. She majored in computer science and earned an MBA at Duke before going to work for Microsoft.) They looked for the most effective ways to help the global poor, and came “very quickly to these childhood deaths (from malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea-related diseases) that are happening, which are really needless deaths,” she said.

Since then, The Gates Foundation has poured billions of dollars into developing new vaccines, and distributing existing vaccines to poor children in whom the pharmaceutical industry had previously expressed little interest. The foundation’s work on vaccines, all done in partnership, and often designed to create incentives for drug companies to invent new vaccines or serve the poor, has been world-changing–and Gates said it was the philanthropic accomplishment of which she was most proud.

“There are literally over 3 million children alive because of the vaccine work we’ve done,” she said.

Along the way, she said, the foundation made some mistakes. Early on, reflecting the Gates’ faith in science and innovation, the foundation focused on developing a new malaria vaccine. But, she said, they did not pay enough attention to the deaths and disability being caused today by malaria. Subsequently, the foundation invested in long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which have been proven to be an extremely cost-effective way to prevent childhood deaths.

We got very involved in the Global Fund (to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria) and many other mechanisms to deliver malaria bed nets and to do it well, to make sure they were high quality, that people knew how to use them, that they were sleeping under them, that we were measuring that. The original scientific focus was too strong…That was a learning for us.

hqdefaultShe talked, too, about the foundation’s insistence on data. “In the tech industry, you couldn’t make decisions without good data…When I was running this piece of Microsoft that had 1800 employees, I was getting data, I was getting customer feedback,” she said. (No wonder one of her products, Bob, died so quickly.) They wanted to collect evidence about bed nets. “Do we know if they’re high quality? Do we know how many are getting out there? Do we know if people are actually sleeping under them rather than fishing with them?”

“Without data,” she said, “you don’t know if you are going to achieve anything or not. We demand that now in all of our projects.”

Gates also spoke passionately about empowering women, and about the foundation’s support for family planning. Providing women in Africa and India with contraception, so they can decide when they want to have children, just as women in wealthy countries do, is vital to global health and development:

You empower a woman, and you change the world. If she’s economically empowered in her family, all kinds of magical things change. She invests in the children, in their wellness, their nutrition and their education and it changes the whole cycle.

While conservative Catholics have criticized Gates, she said in a 2012 TedX talk about birth control: “I believe I’m applying the lessons I learned in high school.” Gates remains grateful to the nuns, and has been a major donor to the 142-year-old academy for many years. The Gates Foundation also has made $7 million in grants to the school to support science, math and technology education.

It’s one more reminder, not that we need one, that this foundation is shaped by the couple whose names are on the door.


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