Living with the Gates Foundation: the debate continues

Tim Ogden

Tim Ogden

Describing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the world’s largest foundation is accurate but a substantial understatement. Its annual giving is more than six times larger than its closest ‘peer’. There are fewer than 100 US foundations that give more than $50 million annually. The Gates Foundation gives $50 million per week.

But it’s not just the amount of giving that distinguishes the foundation. As Ed Skloot puts it, the foundation ‘differs from the institutional norm in almost every way: in size, ambition, high-level connections, proactivity, long-term commitment, operational engagement, and public leadership’. The Gates Foundation is treading new ground, changing expectations and the policy environment of philanthropy by its very existence.

That’s why I was pleased to be asked to serve as guest editor of the special feature in the September issue of Alliance, examining the impact of the Gates Foundation. The goal of the issue was not criticizing the foundation but honestly raising questions and issues that inevitably emerge from such a unique entity. You can read my introduction to the section here, where I provide an overview of the various contributions.

The issue has, I hope, moved some important conversations and discussions out into the open. Last week I participated in a panel discussion based on the issue hosted by Bill Schambra at the Hudson Institute – you can see a recorded video of the session here. Caroline Preston has a summary here.

As Ed Skoot and Laura Freschi, contributors to the special section and co-panelists, noted, there are many reasons to praise the energy and vitality the Gates Foundation has brought to its areas of interest. But there are also concerns. Some of the behaviours of the foundation – while undoubtedly intended to accelerate positive change – may have the perverse effect of limiting the foundation’s ability to hear and react to feedback.

Beyond the issues around specific programs, there is the larger question of how not only the approach but the very existence of such a large foundation will affect public policy and beliefs about philanthropy and the role of private foundations in society. As I asked toward the end of the session, how should we balance goals of honouring donor intent with huge institutions capable of affecting policy but only accountable to a few individuals?

If you find these questions vital and interesting, I’d invite you to join a webinar on Living with the Gates Foundation, hosted by Stanford Social Innovation Review on Wednesday. I’ll be moderating a panel that includes Ed Skloot, Laura Freschi, Megan Tompkins-Stange and Bruce Sievers as we wrestle further with these issues. The session won’t be a series of presentations but a conversation. I’ll be asking the panelists my own questions but also taking questions and comments from the audience right from the beginning. You can find all the details here. I hope you’ll join us. You’ll not only get access to the Alliance special feature, but also a discounted subscription to both Alliance and SSIR.

Tim Ogden is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action and a frequent contributor to Alliance and SSIR.

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