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Twelve years ago, in a cover story for Philanthropy, I explored the issue of whether or not Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller Sr. were similar types of donors.

I concluded that, at least as regards their giving for medical research and public heath, that there were some similarities. Both men dominated their industries. Both were attacked by the Justice Department as wicked monopolists, although in both cases market forces were undermining the monopoly even as the lawsuit was taking place. (Rockefeller never invested in Texas oil, ensuring that the Pews and Mellons would become formidable competitors. Microsoft’s dominance in software and browsers has been steadily undermined by Mozilla and cloud computing, pushing the firm to become more of a hardware manufacturer of game consoles and mobile phones.)

Moreover, the reasons why Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller chose medical research as their primary focus of their charity are quite different. The primary impetus for Rockefeller’s medical giving was Frederick T. Gates, Rockefeller’s principal philanthropic advisor, while Bill Gates decided to fight malaria (and later, polio) out of personal conviction. John D. Rockefeller was a very disinterested donor, whereas Gates is famous for consuming complicated medical texts in order to ask the doctors and scientists he employs highly complex questions.

I bring up the connections between Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller because it came up in a very lengthy and interesting profile of Gates published in the November 2 Financial Times.

People who love reading about Gates’s wonkery will find plenty to enjoy here, including the claim by Gates program officer Raja Rao that Gates is known to “sit in a room for 11 hours nonstop just talking about technology, eating snacks and drinking Diet Coke.” But the important parts of the article are about Gates’s philanthropic vision.

Waters interviewed Peter Diamandis, who is famous for using his wealth to fund prizes designed to solve social problems. Waters says that “according to Diamandis, the Gates Foundation, with its focus on alleviating the suffering of the poorest, smacks of the 20th-century philanthropy of the robber barons, who built and then milked monopolies before spending their last years doling out cash to worthy causes. The latest wave of techno-visionaries, he says, is focused instead on creating whole new industries capable of changing the world.”

I’ve seen sensible statements from Diamandis in the past, so I’d love to know what he actually said rather than what Waters says he said. I can’t, for example, imagine Diamandis calling Carnegie and Rockefeller “robber barons” (don’t get me started, but neither Carnegie nor Rockefeller “robbed” anyone).

In any case, here is Gates’s reply: “Industries are only valuable to the extent they meet human needs. There’s not some—at least in my psyche—this notion of, oh, we need new industries. We need children not to die, we need people to have an opportunity to have a good education.”

That’s a little inarticulate, but on point. The primary task of philanthropy is to answer this question: “How do I help the poor improve their lives without having poor people becoming dependent on my aid?” Every great philanthropist comes up with a different answer to this question. Andrew Carnegie’s was to fund libraries so that poor people could learn the skills they needed to climb the social ladder. Bill Gates’s is to fight the diseases that primarily affect the poor. Both methods are equally valid.

Moreover, it’s clear that, while Gates has to spend some of his time persuading Third World politicians to allow Gates-funded doctors to vaccinate the poor, most of Gates’s funding goes to supporting scientific research. Gates isn’t funding conferences where the great and the good travel in business class and stay in first-class hotels to attend endless seminars about how vaccination is a good idea, but it’s far more than the private sector can handle, so we all have to lobby to increase the World Health Organization’s budget because the need is just so immense. He’s funding scientific research. That, to my mind, is a good thing.

However, Peter Diamandis’s philanthropy is also significant. It’s likely that some of Diamandis’s prizes won’t result in anything useful. But some will. Supporting prizes is a worthy goal of philanthropy.

Both Bill Gates and Peter Diamandis deserve credit for being hands-on donors passionately committed to the causes they fund. They’re far better role models than perpetual foundations created by long-dead founders whose program officers were graduated from the same schools, acquired the same credentials, and as a result eagerly embrace the mind-numbing groupthink that remains philanthropy’s greatest problem.

Bill Gates’s vaccine research is an admirable use of philanthropic dollars. I hope he succeeds in finding a vaccine for malaria and in eradicating polio.

1 thought on “Is Bill Gates the John D. Rockefeller Sr. of our times?”

  1. chris na says:

    This is propaganda. I wonder where the funding for “Philanthropy Daily” comes from…

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