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Window on Gates’ charity – Giving $1B a year a tough job

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The world’s richest person is finding that giving away his wealth can be as challenging as creating it, The New York Times reports.

In a cover story in the Times’ Sunday magazine, J.P. Morgan biographer Jean Strouse offers an inside look at the operation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With $21.8 billion, the foundation recently eclipsed the Wellcome Trust in England as the world’s largest foundation.

Yet the foundation, to which Bill Gates has been giving $5 billion every three months, is a family affair run without a board and with a skeleton staff, the Times says.

It contributes more than $1 billion a year.

The foundation has drawn some criticism for its homespun, family approach to philanthropy, but it also has won high praise for its innovative and ambitious efforts to making change happen, particularly in the area world health.

“Grant-making on that scale is a very difficult,” Edward A. Ames of the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, told the Times.

People controlling “huge new pools of money being turned to philanthropy,” Ames said, may not now enough about “the impact they can have on the fields that are the objects of their generosity.”

Yet while the Times characterizes Gates as a “closet liberal” because of his foundation’s focus on leveling the playing field in health and education, his philanthropy gets high marks from the head of a libertarian think-tank.

“I applaud Gates for all the wealth he’s created,” Edward Crane, president of the Cato Institute in  Washington, told the Times. “It’s his money, and he c an do with it whatever he likes.”

Last year, Microsoft’s founder decided to combine two smaller charitable funds into one and to increase the endowment.

He did not, however, appoint a board. All decision are made by Gates; his wife, Melinda; his father, Bill Sr., who is the foundation’s CEO; and former Microsoft executive Patty Stonesifer, who is the foundation’s president.

Some worry that power rests in too few hands at the foundation.  Historian Mark Dowie, who is writing a book on American foundations, recently urged Gates to set up a board with race and gender balance, the Times says.

Gordon Conway, executive director of the Rockefeller Foundation, however, has said the Gates foundation’s health foundations are extremely well focused.

Charles Hamilton, executive director of the Clark Foundation, told the Times that a small board allows the foundation to be more agile and responsive.

When the two Gates foundations combined last year, they expanded their staff and appointed executive directors for their library, education and global health programs.

The staff now consists of about 130 people, 110 of which are computer trainers who travel the country wiring public libraries.  The officers of the foundation also consult with 60 to 75 experts in various fields.

The smaller Ford Foundation, by comparison, has a worldwide staff of 567.

Using that money to do good most effectively is a difficult challenge.

“Giving is as tough a business as getting,” investment manager Richard Gilder told the Times. 

“You can do so much damage,” he said to the Times. “The rule in philanthropy, as in medicine, should be ‘First, do no harm.'”

Here’s a summary of major funding by the foundation:

* $1 billion over 20 years to establish the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program, which will support promising minority students through college and some kinds of graduate school.

* $750 million over five years to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which includes the World Health Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, pharmaceutical companies and the World Bank.

* $350 million over three years to teachers, administrators, school districts and schools to improve America’s K-12 education, starting in Washington State.

* $200 million to the Gates Library Program, which is wiring public libraries in America’s poorest communities in an effort to close the “digital divide” between those with access to technology and those without it.

* $100 million to the Gates Children’s Vaccine Program, which will accelerate delivery of lifesaving vaccines to children in the poorest countries of the world.

* $50 million to the Maternal Mortality Reduction Program, run by the Columbia University School of Public Health.

* $50 million to the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, to conduct research on promising candidates for a malaria vaccine.

* $50 million to an international group called the Alliance for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer.

* $50 million to a fund for global polio eradication, led by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International and the U.N. Foundation.

* $40 million to the International Vaccine Institute, a research program based in Seoul, South Korea.

* $28 million to UNICEF for the elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus.

$25 million to the Sequella Global Tuberculosis Foundation.

$25 million to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which is creating coalitions of research scientists, pharmaceutical companies and governments in developing countries to look for a safe, effective, widely accessible vaccine against AIDS.

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