Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to United Way Worldwide as United Way America.

Gates' giving helps build United Way center in Alexandria

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, October 18, 2010

Mary M. Gates died shortly before her son Bill and his wife became attuned to global health problems, before they created their own charitable foundation and became the world's largest international givers.

But it is her name that graces a new $17 million conference and learning center at the Alexandria headquarters of United Way Worldwide. Her husband, Bill Gates Sr., and son, who founded Microsoft, were at the conference center's unveiling last Wednesday to talk about the status of philanthropy today and the creation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, considered the largest charitable foundation in the world.

Inspired by Mary Gates, the first woman to serve on the United Way's board, it is estimated that Bill and Melinda Gates have given more than $28 billion to charity, second only to Warren E. Buffet, and they gave $4.2 million toward the learning center. (Buffett and Melinda Gates are members of the board of directors of The Washington Post Co., parent of Capital Business.)

The conference center's unveiling happened to fall on the same day that Michelle Rhee, the D.C. schools chancellor with whom Gates appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in September, resigned, something Gates called "a step backwards" for education reform.

"D.C. was willing to put a personnel situation in place," he said. "There's a question of whether they'll stick to that, but it was a good model in terms of showing people that measurement counts and if you want the kids to get a good education you've got to insist on good teaching."

"I think there are some good lessons from D.C., and hopefully D.C. itself will continue to believe that kids are the priority," he added.

The learning center provides video conferencing and webcasting that will enable local United Way organizations, of which there are more than 1,800 in 40 counties and territories, to communicate and share ideas. With the help of additional donations from Deloitte, Nationwide Insurance Foundation, the Principal Financial Group and individual donors, the center was built in place of existing United Way office space overlooking the Potomac River.

Under its chief executive and president, Brian Gallagher, United Way of America has been more closely measuring outcomes, tightening membership standards and trying to increase corporate giving. He said the Gates family's longtime connection to the United Way represented a model that other businesses and executives ought to follow: Throw out typical strategies and give to a cause that you and your family care about.

"For business leaders and companies specifically, all the data is clear," Gallagher said. "Get engaged in a genuine way on the social issues that matter to people and do it long term. Don't see it as marketing, don't see it as business building. If you make a genuine commitment as a company with your time and your money and your people to issues that people care about, your brand will be successful, you'll get more loyal customers. If you do it the other way, customers and stakeholders see that as well."

Gates Sr., an attorney who formed his own law practice in Washington state, talked about his son's evolution as a giver going back to when he was a young software executive awash in money.

"In terms of his interest and commitment, that existed before the foundation," Gates Sr. said. "The foundation was a mechanic for it."

The father said that of all his son has accomplished in founding Microsoft and becoming the world's richest man, his philanthropic work would have made Mary Gates most proud. "It's absolutely unique and it's huge," he said.

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