Gates Foundation takes up question of its own power

Jan 18, 2023, 6:48 AM | Updated: 1:44 pm
Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attends a news conference during the World E...

Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attends a news conference during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos from May 22 until May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Does The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have too much power and influence?

It’s a question the foundation’s CEO Mark Suzman raised in its annual letter released Tuesday that outlines the organization’s priorities and announces its budget for the coming year. With $8.3 billion to give away in 2023, the Gates Foundation is the largest private philanthropic donor. And with an endowment of more than $70 billion, its spending power is likely to continue for many decades.

When asked in an interview with The Associated Press what he thought the answer to that question was, Suzman said, “No.”

He said the Seattle-based foundation takes its direction from the Sustainable Development Goals, set by the United Nations and its member countries in 2015, and knows that with its great resources come great responsibility.

“We try to use our tools, our skills, our resources, sometimes our technical skills, sometimes our voice in advocacy to help advance and drive those forward,” Suzman said.

Others disagree, including researchers who have followed the foundation’s funding for education in the U.S., its weight in international global health organizations and its approach toward the agriculture of small-holder farmers around the world. The foundation works on a wide range of issues and employs 1,700 staff members, who are experts in those areas, and espouses a dream-big ethos of setting ambitious goals.

Bill Gates, in his most recent public letter in December, described the foundation’s mission as reducing inequity and helping “people in poor countries who shouldn’t die, not die. Especially children.” Suzman said its mission is to help “ensure that every person has the chance to lead a healthy, productive life.”

It has spent billions of dollars to vaccinate against poliotreat and prevent malaria and HIV and more recently advance vaccines for diseases like cholera and advocated for other donors, including countries, to join in these global public health efforts.

But some of its interventions have not achieved their goals, despite widespread adoption.

In one example, the foundation championed a theory of measuring teacher effectiveness in U.S. schools. Then, it commissioned research in 2018 that found the approach did little to consistently improve learning outcomes for students. It also advocated for curriculum standards called the Common Core that have been criticized as being too formulaic and are still in effect in some states.

The foundation announced in October a new education initiative funded by $1.1 billion over four years to try to improve math scores through developing new curricula and digital tools. For Alex Molnar, of the National Education Policy Center, the plan demonstrates the power billionaires like Bill Gates have — experimenting with the education of the poorest children, despite past missteps.

“It is so fundamentally misdirected and so obviously wrong, both in the moral sense and in the rational sense, that it is literally breathtaking,” Molnar said. “This very wealthy, very narrow man can continually, continually torment schoolchildren while all the while pretending that somehow he’s making the world better.”

The foundation, Suzman said, approaches its education work with humility and will develop curricula in partnership with teachers, students and schools. It does not impose its ideas from the top down, he said.

When asked about previous criticism that its education work had ignored issues that arise from poverty and that hurt learning, Suzman said he doesn’t see that as philanthropy’s role. He says it should support programs governments or business can’t or won’t fund.

“If we had great tools to address poverty, we would tackle it,” he said, of the foundation.

Molnar disagreed, saying that diminishing the number of poor people would mean stopping the wealthiest people from amassing their fortunes in the first place.

“It requires taking money from people like Mr. Gates — taxing the bejesus out of them,” he said. “Nobody should have that much money. Nobody should have that much influence.”

The Gates Foundation has recently taken steps to decentralize its decision-making. In the last two years, it expanded its top leadership, appointing five new members to its board of trustees, with 2023 marking the first time the larger board approved the foundation budget.

New members have already pushed the foundation to be more transparent, Suzman said. The board also recommended the foundation set aside some of the $20 billion that Bill Gates committed to the organization in 2022 for future work and gradually raise its annual budget to $9 billion by 2026.

That the new board members have deep experience in philanthropy “is a recognition that giving money away well is a sophisticated enterprise and something that takes experience and learning and expertise,” said Kathleen Enright, who leads the Council on Foundations.

Bill Gates has reiterated that all his wealth eventually will go to the foundation, which will close 20 years after he, Melinda French Gates and Warren Buffett have all died. Buffett has entrusted the foundation with $36 billion from his fortune.

“It’s thankfully not a burning platform,” said Suzman.

In 2021, when Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates announced their divorce, they said she would evaluate her participation in the foundation after two years. She remains fully committed to the foundation’s work, Suzman said, when asked.

In 2021, in its first report on the inclusiveness and equity of its work, the foundation learned many of its grantees and partners wanted to be consulted more and have their input incorporated into the foundation’s strategy.

Suzman said every team at the foundation now has a mandate to deepen their relationships with partners and its entire leadership team is participating in a year-long inclusion training.

“In the end, money can buy you any form of short term success,” Suzman said. “But long term sustainability requires deep sustained local ownership and direction and ultimately resources.”


In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Northwest, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer reac...
Associated Press

Man rescued by Coast Guard wanted in ‘Goonies’ fish incident

A man who was saved by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer at the mouth of the Columbia River as a massive wave rolled the yacht he was piloting Friday was wanted for a bizarre incident in which police said he left a dead fish at the Astoria, Oregon, home featured in the classic 1985 film, "The Goonies."
17 hours ago
FILE - An Amazon company logo on the company's building in Schoenefeld near Berlin, Germany, March ...
Associated Press

Amazon violated labor law with delivery app

A Spanish court has ruled that Amazon broke labor laws by forcing more than 2,000 delivery drivers to use an app that the company controlled for scheduling work and payments and requiring them to use their own cars and cellphones on the job.
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Saturday’s Scores

GIRLS PREP BASKETBALL= Bellarmine Prep 54, Olympia 43 Chiawana 76, Hermiston, Ore. 41 Hazen 40, Liberty 36 Kamiakin 77, Pasco 17 Orcas Island 67, Concrete 13 South Kitsap 39, Bethel 37 ___ Some high school basketball scores provided by Scorestream.com, https://scorestream.com/ Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Saturday’s Scores

BOYS PREP BASKETBALL= Adna 66, Raymond 47 Goldendale 56, Kittitas 33 Issaquah 65, Newport-Bellevue 46 Klahowya 79, North Mason 50 Lummi 65, Lopez 25 Mount Vernon Christian 81, Shoreline Christian 33 Neah Bay 91, Taholah 36 Orcas Island 82, Fellowship Christian 36 Puyallup 63, Emerald Ridge 52 Woodinville 73, North Creek 49 ___ Some high […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Crash averted at Austin airport; FAA, NTSB to investigate

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A FedEx cargo airplane attempting to land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Saturday had to reverse course after a second plane was cleared to depart from the same runway, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. “The pilot of the FedEx airplane discontinued the landing and initiated a climb out,” the FAA […]
17 hours ago
Skateboarders skate in front of city hall in remembrance of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beat...
Associated Press

Tony Hawk to donate photo proceeds to Tyre Nichols fund

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Skateboard legend Tony Hawk says he will donate half of the proceeds of autographed photos of himself and BMX rider Rick Throne to the memorial fund for Tyre Nichols. “My proceeds from these will go to the Tyre Nichols Memorial Fund, which includes plans to build a public skatepark in his […]
17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Gates Foundation takes up question of its own power