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Confronting the Gates Foundation’s ‘Brass-Knuckle’ Dominance

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is big—really, really big.

Sure, its wealth today may be a smaller share of the U.S. economy than that of the Ford Foundation at mid 20th-century, as a Gates official noted yesterday. But Gates’s $3-billion in annual giving dwarfs that of other foundations and lends it a level of influence not achieved by its philanthropic peers—or, for that matter, some governments.

Alliance magazine and the Hudson Institute hosted a panel in Washington on Tuesday to discuss questions raised by Gates’s size and its increasingly sophisticated use of advocacy tools and the news media. The discussion was inspired by a special issue in the magazine devoted to the software billionaire’s philanthropy.

Tim Ogden, editor of Philanthropy Action, and Laura Freschi, of New York University’s Development Research Institute, described the extent of Gates’s dominance and how its vast resources can squelch dissent.

While other philanthropies are trying to help get the ball across the goal line on issues they care about, Mr. Ogden said, Gates is “creating the ball, building the team, hiring the referees,” and “funding the instant replay.”

Ms. Freschi said it’s not out of the question that one day a reader might devour an article about a Gates-supported health project, printed on the pages of a newspaper that gets Gates money, reported by a journalist who received media training paid for by Gates, citing research by scientists financed by Gates.

Gates’s focus on relentlessly highlighting the positives of global health and antipoverty work may sometimes come at a cost, she said. (She noted the title of a recent Gates-sponsored conference on malaria: “Optimism and Urgency.”)

While optimism has a place in advocacy, Ms. Freschi said, she questioned how big its role should be in vaccine research. She asked whether there was enough of a “firewall” among data collection, scientific analysis, and advocacy at the Gates fund and whether its money and influence could cause researchers to focus on approaches they didn’t believe in or to portray results in overly rosy ways.

To avoid such dangers, Ms. Freschi urged Gates to go beyond a culture of feedback to develop a “culture of dissent.” A few suggestions: finding creative ways to solicit feedback from beneficiaries of its programs; an embrace of “radical transparency” by publishing all evaluations of its work on its Web site; and encouraging Gates employees to challenge their supervisors and even the fund’s founders.

Edward Skloot, director of Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, agreed that Gates deserves careful scrutiny because of its size. He said the philanthropy practices a tough, “brass-knuckle philanthropy.”

But Mr. Skloot says that, in many ways, the foundation is an exemplar: a model of what philanthropy experts have been waiting for.

It has embraced the so-called best practices for which foundation watchers agitate. The fund is focused in its work; it advocates and seeks to shape public policy; it makes savvy use of the news media; its founders are smart and “ubiquitous”; it makes long-term bets; it works with other donors; and it has “a taste for metrics,” he said.

“That comes pretty close to the ideal,” says Mr. Skloot.

Representing the gorilla in the room—though clothed in suit and tie—was Darin McKeever, Gates’s deputy director of charitable sector support.

Mr. McKeever acknowledged that it is difficult for a fund as big and influential as Gates to “get honest feedback.” He said the philanthropy takes seriously the critiques of grantees and is trying to improve its relationships with charities, spurred in part by not-so-flattering findings from an anonymous survey of grantees in 2009.

Mr. McKeever said the fund wants to identify new opportunities for soliciting feedback. The Hudson event was one such opportunity, though Mr. McKeever, who said he’d prepared for all manner of questions, received only polite ones. 

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