FUNDING AREAS: Global health and development, U.S. education, advancing philanthropy.
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Microsoft, private investments
ESTIMATED WORTH: $78.9 billion
OVERVIEW: Bill and Melinda Gates are among the world's leading philanthropists. They co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation in 2000 and have made philanthropy their full-time focus. In 2010, the Gateses and Warren Buffett started the Giving Pledge, a campaign that encourages the wealthiest people in the world to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes.
BACKGROUND: Taking an early interest in the nascent world of personal computing, and showing an aptitude for software coding, Gates formed Microsoft when he was a sophomore in college, dropping out of Harvard to focus on building his new company. A partnership with IBM and the development of DOS set the stage for Microsoft to become the computer giant it is today and to make Gates the richest man in the world. After spending 25 years as the company's president and CEO, Gates eventually transitioned out of his role at Microsoft to focus on philanthropy. He remains on Microsoft's board and is a major shareholder in the company. Melinda joined Microsoft after college and held various positions in the company before leaving to focus on raising a family and, later, developing the largest philanthropic foundation in history.
PHILOSOPHY: With such a vast fortune, Bill and Melinda Gates have a chance to create impact on a truly global scale, and the majority of their giving has focused on improving the health and well-being of the world's poorest people. The Gates Foundation's tagline is: "All Lives Have Equal Value." Bill and Melinda have written about themselves: "We’re both optimists. We believe by doing these things—focusing on a few big goals and working with our partners on innovative solutions—we can help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life." Their 2017 annual letter offers a good overview of the challenges that have preoccupied them as philanthropists.
The Gateses' philanthropic approach involves frequent experimentation and risk taking. In a letter on the foundation's website, they write, "Some of the projects we fund will fail. We not only accept that, we expect it—because we think an essential role of philanthropy is to make bets on promising solutions that governments and businesses can’t afford to make. As we learn which bets pay off, we have to adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit."
GLOBAL HEALTH: Improving health outcomes in developing countries has been the top priority of Gates philanthropy from the start. Their foundation's Global Health Division describes its mission as seeking "to harness advances in science and technology to save lives in developing countries." Developing and delivering vaccinations and other life-saving interventions is a major focus. They've given billions in funding to secure advances against HIV, malaria, polio and other diseases. Improving children's health and maternal well-being are also key goals of the foundation, along with expanding access to family planning services.
GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT: In addition to its health-related programs, the Gates Foundation supports programs through its Global Development Division that aim "to identify and fund high-impact solutions that can help hundreds of millions of people lift themselves out of poverty and build better lives." Priorities include helping small farmers in developing countries to sustainably increase production and sell more crops, advancing financial inclusion, improving water and sanitation systems, providing emergency response to humanitarian disasters, and more. Melinda Gates has become a highly visible advocate of women's empowerment as a key to advancing global development.
U.S. EDUCATION: While the bulk of Gates philanthropy focuses on global issues, the foundation is a major funder of work in the United States, with a focus on education. The foundation says that its primary focus in this area "is on ensuring that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and have an opportunity to earn a post-secondary degree with labor-market value." To this end, the foundation has funded a wide array of K-12 initiatives around the United States, as well as extensive research. It describes itself as playing a "catalytic" role to advance innovation that might otherwise not occur. Bill Gates has talked often about the critical need for research and development on proven solutions to improve student outcomes, and has described the Gates Foundation's role in these terms. The Gates Foundation plays a major role in developing and implementing the Common Core State Standards.
ADVANCING PHILANTHROPY: Bill and Melinda Gates are leading advocates of more philanthropic giving, especially by the world's wealthiest people. In addition to developing the Giving Pledge, their foundation is a major grantmaker to organizations that research or promote philanthropy.
LOOKING FORWARD: After many years of philanthropy, Bill Gates remains the richest person in the world and even bigger things likely lie ahead for the couple's giving. The vast bulk of the Gates fortune is expected to be used for philanthropy. Bill and Melinda have said their foundation will continue its work for only 20 years after the last of them have died.