In February, the Gates Foundation issued the tenth annual letter by Bill and Melinda Gates. This year Bill and Melinda Gates decided to do something different. They posed “ten tough questions” they say have been posed to them over the years and then answered them.

This approach led the great and the good to ask if foundations, which everyone knows are universally beloved, should be criticized. Jena McGregor collected some of these in this Washington Post piece.

Inside Philanthropy editor David Callahan thundered that “If you run the Gates Foundation, you have to be thinking about making sure it doesn’t become one of those institutions that Americans distrust.”

The Urban Institute’s Benjamin Soskis added that “the general discourse around philanthropy—the default attitude—has shifted slightly away from a natural pose of gratitude toward one of some degree of critical scrutiny.”

My goodness! Foundations should be criticized. Are you shocked? I’m not. But then I wrote Great Philanthropic Mistakes.

Rather than pile on the Gates Foundation, I think it more constructive to discuss positive aspects of Bill and Melinda Gates’s letter. I’d like to make clear that I’ve never received or sought any money from the Gates Foundation. Four years ago, I did once have lunch with Bill Gates (along with 300 other people). That’s my only connection with the man.

Here are things I liked about the annual letter.

It’s from the donors. The best way to ensure donor intent is to ensure that donors have as strong a voice as possible. An annual letter from the donor is a good way to ensure this. I liked the way Bill and Melinda Gates tried to make their letter personal, and include some quirky touches, such as their favorite shows that they stream. (They both like “The Crown” while Bill is fond of “The Man From the High Castle.”)

The donors control the foundation. The most common criticism of the Gates Foundation is that the funding is made by a central committee of three people: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, who gave the Gates the portion of his fortune that didn’t go to his children.[1] But…these people are plutocrats! Why doesn’t a gigantic board, made up of greyheads weighted by their impressive credentials and experience, make decisions?

But Bill Gates made the money that made the foundation possible! Why shouldn’t he decide how to spend his money on causes he prefers?

The Gates are optimists. In contrast to the daily disasters the media covers, Bill and Melinda Gates realize that in many ways the world is getting better. The poor are getting richer and are living longer, and in particular many children who would have died before they became teenagers are getting a chance to live longer. Melinda Gates noted that, thanks to better immunization rates, the number of children under age 5 in the world who died last year was five million, compared to 10 million in 2000, meaning that there were five million families where parents didn’t outlive their children or siblings didn’t have to worry about losing a sister or brother. This falling childhood death rate, Melinda Gates writes, “is our favorite anti-pessimism statistic.”

Moreover, they are guided in their optimism by the writings and videos of Dr. Hans Rosling, and Bill Gates added in a note, “We still miss him.”

Melinda Gates notes that Dr. Rosling taught them “when more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down.” Parents tend to decide to have fewer children if they know their offspring will live to adulthood.[2]

They realize that development often imposes values on the Third World. Study the history of development and you find well-meaning donors spending large sums on projects that the poor neither wanted nor needed. But Melinda Gates writes that “we’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful—it’s more effective.”

Moreover, many of the programs the Gates Foundation funds in the Third World aren’t ones that “impose values.” Preventing river blindness does not cast aspersions on people who suffer from this disease. Teaching farmers how to rotate their crops to improve production does not involve telling poor people what to eat.

In my view, the Gates’ annual letter suffers from one major flaw. Their major domestic program in the U.S. is in education. I’d love to see a good scholarly article explaining the history of the Gates Foundation and American education, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they flitted from one program to another. At first they believed small schools were the answer. More recently they put all their chips on Common Core which is in the process of becoming vaporware if it hasn’t already evaporated.

My reading of the answer to their education question is that they realize they have made mistakes in the past, but promise to do better in the future. But they don’t mention Common Core at all. That’s a serious omission, particularly given how controversial Common Core was.

I believe that Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to be as honest as they can about what they are trying to do with the Gates Foundation. More donors ought to use their letter as a model and use it as a template. If they do, they will do a better job communicating with the public about what they want to accomplish with the foundations they have created.


[1] I also support Buffett’s decision to transfer his wealth to younger people whom he trusts, particularly since the Gates Foundation is term-limited and will sunset 20 years after the death of Bill and Melinda Gates.

[2] I discuss this population trend in my chapter on the 1960s efforts of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in Great Philanthropic Mistakes.

This photo was taken by Kjetil Ree. © 2009 Kjetil Ree, some rights reserved. Slight modifications were made.