I know, this question seems totally obnoxious given that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave away $3.4 billion in 2012. Nobody has ever given at this level, period. But hear me out on why Bill and Melinda Gates are moving far more slowly than conventional wisdom suggests. And why much bigger giving may lie in the future.
Despite all the money that Bill Gates has given away, he and Melinda currently sit on a fortune estimated at $72 billion. In other words, the wealth Gates hasn't yet put into the foundation is roughly twice as large as the current assets of the foundation (which stand at $40 billion). He and Melinda have the capacity to give at a much, much higher capacity.
So why aren't they doing that?
Why is so much Gates money sitting on the sidelines— especially given Gates's global campaign to get billionaires and governments alike to give more, and his frequent observation that spending additional money on things like vaccinations translates, almost mathematically, into saving more lives? If nearly every dollar spent really has that kind of certain impact, why not step things up— and now?
Also, here's a more practical question: Just how exactly do Bill and Melinda Gates plan to deploy that extra $72 billion if they aren't already increasing their annual giving now? Just do the math here: If they started giving away another $3 billion annually, starting this year, they'd go through only half that money by the mid-2020s.
Gates has not said much about the pace of his giving (at least that I've seen), but it's interesting to speculate on what he and Melinda are thinking. So, herewith, a few possible reasons for the go-slow approach.
They Want More Evidence and Better Answers
Gates is famously obsessed with effective grantmaking and evaluating the impact of the foundation's work. And while spending on certain global health challenges may be pretty straightforward, other areas of grantmaking, like development and education, are far more murky. The Gateses may simply feel like they don't yet have the answers they need or want before ramping up further. But a few years from now, those answers may be clear, especially given the foundation's huge investments in research and evaluation.
They Are Waiting for Bigger, Better Pipelines
Giving away vast amounts of money is way harder than it looks, and there's a long history of grantmakers dumping too much money into a space too quickly, before the right infrastructure was in place to spend big funds effectively. The Gateses may feel that three billion is about as much as they can move out the door right now without overloading their own institutional capacity and that of the organizations they work with.
They Want That Big Fortune to Get Bigger
This is my favorite theory: Bill Gates wants to keep growing his fortune and have an even bigger pile to pump into philanthropy in a decade or two. Beyond his continued large holdings of Microsoft stock (which might one day recover some of its past valuation), Gates has made a wide variety of investments. It's perfectly plausible that that $72 billion fortune could grow even larger. Could we imagine Bill and Melinda Gates sitting on $150 billion a decade or two from now? Yes, we could.
Regardless, here's the bottom line: As much as the Gates Foundation is now giving, it's actually a near certainty that we ain't seen nothing yet.