At the Gates foundation, the goal is 'being a catalyst'

Area and national business people describe their dedication to charitable giving as deeply personal, strategic and unwavering.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 6:20 PM

It has been 10 years since Bill and Melinda Gates gave $16 billion to their foundation, putting it in the top tier of charitable organizations. Gates isn't the first captain of industry to give a large chunk of his personal fortune to charity, but even by the standards of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford his gift is enormous. It was followed by a commitment in 2006 from Warren Buffett to give 10 million shares of his Berkshire Hathaway stock, then worth $31 billion, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jeff Raikes, chief executive of the foundation, brings to his job a business background. He joined Microsoft in 1981 as a product manager and eventually became part of Microsoft's senior leadership team. With international partners and government officials gathered in Seattle last week about an initiative to help the developing world's poor protect their savings, Raikes took time to answer some questions about the foundation's mission and strategy.

Q. Just how big is the Gates foundation?

A. We have an endowment of $36 billion, nearly 900 employees, and partnerships with thousands of NGOs, businesses, and governments. We are focused on being a catalyst - working with others to innovate and create new ideas and solutions to the world's toughest problems - that can be scaled up and sustained by the private sector and/or public sector for lasting impact.

We have made a 10-year, $10 billion commitment to vaccines because we believe vaccines are the best investment you can make for saving lives, bar none. Because of polio vaccines, we're on the verge of eradicating polio from the world. A measles vaccine costs about 25 cents per dose, and two doses protect a child for a lifetime, but delivering vaccines worldwide takes an enormous logistical effort. We are fortunate that we have the money and the people - and, most importantly, the partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, research institutes, multilaterals like the GAVI Alliance, government immunization programs, and dedicated nonprofits all over the world - to help make sure that many more children get the benefit of more and better vaccines.

So that means you're giving away . . . how much a year?

Last year, the foundation made $3 billion in grant payments. Since we got started, the foundation has given away more than $23 billion.

It is important to put the size of the foundation in context. Generally speaking, our funding is large relative to other foundations but small relative to that of our partners in the fight against inequalities.

For example, in global health and development, our grants total about 2 percent of aid given by governments to developing countries. Even with all of our resources, our efforts will always be a fraction of what's needed - both in terms of political will and financial resources.

The Gates foundation is a relative newcomer, compared with long-standing foundations such as the Ford or Rockefeller foundations. Aside from even greater resources, what does Gates have to contribute that others don't?

You're absolutely right. Almost everyone in this sector has been at it longer than we have, and they've been extremely generous about sharing their knowledge with us. We think of ourselves as a learning organization, and that means not only learning about issue areas like polio eradication and vaccines but also about how to do philanthropy in the most effective and efficient ways.

At the same time, because we're so new, we hope we can contribute a fresh perspective. One of the things I'm really excited about is what I call "actionable measurement."

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