A monopoly on philanthropy

Brian Thorton

Somehow, Bill Gates always ends up controlling everything.

On Sunday, the media heralded that Gates, the world’s wealthiest person and head of the world’s wealthiest foundation, would take control of the fortune of Warren Buffett, the world’s second-wealthiest person, for the purposes of charitable giving.

That means the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which already had about $30 billion in funds, will balloon to a $60 billion endowment. Once the first transaction is complete next month, the foundation will start making gifts at the staggering rate of $3 billion per year. That represents about 10 percent of all foundation giving in the United States.

The Gateses and Buffett have set a fine example for billionaires around the globe. They have stated their purpose is not to pass their wealth on to their children. And they have not closed their bank accounts until they die. Instead, they have chosen to distribute their enormous earnings while they are still living, thus speeding the funds to those most in need.

Gates announced earlier this month that he will exit his role at Microsoft, the company he founded almost three decades ago, to focus on his foundation. By all accounts, he has already brought his tenacious business and management skills to his philanthropic endeavors. He pours hundreds of millions of dollars into global health and education enterprises, while demanding accountability from his grant recipients.

It’s a strategy that could well produce breakthroughs in AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases still tormenting Third World countries, despite decades of research, prevention and treatment efforts. The commitment is laudable.

But I’m left with troubling thoughts when I consider the vast amount of philanthropic money that Bill and Melinda Gates now control. The problem is that Gates has always excelled at bullying his competition and generating huge profits. In fact, his non-monopoly monopolies have grown so huge he has been the subject of numerous lawsuits.

Microsoft is everywhere. But its product – well, it isn’t so great.

Windows has dominated as an operating system for almost two decades. Office workers and students can’t escape Word or Excel. And Explorer is still the browser choice for 85 percent of Internet users.

But how many people would trade their Microsoft tools in for something else, if only that something else was viable and universally accepted?

Now Gates is turning his powerful influence to global health. And the buckets of money he is pouring into charities – for instance, more than half of the budget of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization for the past seven years – means he now has incredible control.

Will the strategies for HIV prevention he funds crash as often as Windows? Will a malaria vaccine developed with his grants be riddled with flaws as badly as Explorer? And will he stifle alternative plans for disease treatment as harshly as he has, well, just about every other competing piece of software on the market?

Such vast power can generate tremendous change. It can also be dangerous in ways we can’t imagine.

Still, the Gateses and Buffett are true leaders in generosity. And society will only benefit if their donations inspire other members of that elite billionaire tier to be equally as giving.

I just hope they spread the wealth.

Brian Thornton is a journalism graduate student and Forum editor of the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].