This year’s annual letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — their 10th such correspondence with the world — takes an unusual approach. Rather than simply touting the organization’s achievements, it answers “10 tough questions that we get asked,” essentially walking into the metaphorical punch offered by critics and observers of the planet’s wealthiest foundation.
That includes queries into the $40 billion foundation’s impact on U.S. education, whether they’re imposing their values on other cultures through global giving, and if it’s fair that they have so much influence due to their tremendous wealth.
The 13-page letter from Bill and Melinda, out today, begins with a defense of their optimistic outlook that the world is getting better, while some might argue that growing climate change, massive refugee crises and uncertainty around the Trump administration suggest otherwise.
Being an optimist “isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better,” the Gateses write. “And that’s what really fuels our optimism.”
The Gates Foundation reports spending about $4.5 billion a year, consisting of $500 million in the United States, primarily on educational programs; and $4 billion towards global health, agriculture and other efforts in developing countries. Throughout the letter, the Gateses address with some humility the evolution of their philanthropic strategies, and Melinda repeatedly raises the importance of women’s empowerment.
In response to the question: “What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?” Bill answers, “A lot, but not as much as either of us would like.”
In terms of education, the Gates Foundation primarily targets high school-related endeavors, and also supports early learning and postsecondary education. The letter recounts lessons learned and missteps, and notes that newer initiatives focus on helping U.S. middle and high schools “develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding” (emphasis theirs) rather than delivering top-down solutions.
In recent interviews with experts on the more general topic of Bill Gates’ philanthropy, he and his foundation are given credit for their mea culpas.
“The field of philanthropy talks a lot about transparency and failure and then doesn’t necessarily do it,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Gates has become more forthcoming about some of their failures.”
The Gateses’ letter also cites their willingness to learn when it comes to international aid and cultural sensitivity.
“We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful — it’s also more effective,” Melinda writes.
The letter raises the question of the foundation’s outsized influence and also asks: “Why are you really giving your money away — what’s in it for you?” The couple acknowledges their tremendous good fortune and an obligation to give back. They agree that it’s unfair that their wealth opens doors closed to others, and acknowledge that sometimes people hesitate to criticize them for fear of losing funding.
In the letter, the Gateses also tout the good their wealth can do.
“If we think it’s unfair that we have so much wealth, why don’t we give it all to the government?” Bill writes. “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.”
These views are shared by others in similar positions.
“Many of these philanthropists have no particular interest in challenging the economic status quo or taking on inequality at some structural level or changing the rules that allowed them to get so wealthy,” said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy.
“They do feel like they’d rather give their money away than have it captured by estate taxes,” he said. “Philanthropy is a more high-leverage tool.”
Other top 10 questions include why the foundation gives money to for-profit corporations, why they don’t donate more to U.S. causes, if saving kids’ lives fuels overpopulation and if the couple ever disagrees. There are also more topical issues covered in the letter, including climate change funding and the effect of the Trump administration.
Regarding curbing the release of greenhouse gases, Bill argues that this challenge is better addressed through market-based solutions. In December 2016, he launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a private investment fund that includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other business leaders. The fund has $1 billion to invest in clean energy.
As to President Trump, Bill writes that questions about the U.S. leader and the effect of his policies come up “more often than all the other topics in this letter combined.”
And here the Gateses’ optimistic tone wanes a bit. The letter cites Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid, his “America First” worldview, his lack of respect for women and others, and his shortcomings as a role model.
“Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with,” Bill writes, “we believe it’s important to work together whenever possible.”