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Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:42 AM

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Gates Foundation has walked the talk

Seattle Times staff reporters

When Bill Gates began pumping billions of dollars into a newly revamped foundation in 1999, cynics chalked it up as a ploy to burnish Microsoft's reputation during the Redmond company's antitrust battle with the federal government.

But more than six years and $10.5 billion later, few doubt the sincerity of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or question its twin goals of tackling the world's most intractable health problems and America's education challenges.

The young foundation has already revolutionized the approach to global public-health problems, focusing on prevention rather than treatment. It has brought a long-term vision to a field that has been hampered by year-to-year grants and unpredictable government funding.

The foundation has emerged as the undisputed leader in combating malaria, childhood diarrhea and a host of other diseases — many preventable — that kill millions each year in the poorest parts of the planet. With an endowment of $29.1 billion, its annual spending on global health rivals that of the World Health Organization.

In education, the Gates Foundation has put forth an equally ambitious vision: It has committed more than $2.4 billion and put the American high school on center stage as an institution that needed a major overhaul.

In both fields, the Gateses have brought a business sensibility that emphasizes measurable results and accountability.

In announcing that he will step aside from Microsoft over the next two years, Gates said yesterday that he plans to devote most of his time to the foundation but was noncommittal about what his new role would be.

"I don't have charted out what I'm going to do there, and I'm not even going to think much about that until the two years goes by," he said.

Others are thrilled at the prospect of Gates becoming a full-time philanthropist.

"In it for the long haul"

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Public-health experts say Gates has embraced the scientific and technical challenges of outwitting the malaria parasite and mass-producing vaccines with the same passion that propelled Microsoft to the top of the business world. They're elated that he will soon be devoting himself more completely to the foundation's work.

"We know he's been bitten by the global health bug," said Marilyn Parsons, associate director of the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), which studies infectious diseases and has received $50 million from the Gates Foundation for work on a malaria vaccine and other projects.

"I think this is a sign he's in it for the long haul."

In tackling a disease like malaria, which kills a million people each year, the foundation is investing in immediate solutions, like providing mosquito nets to households in Zambia. It's working to improve distribution and supplies of existing malaria drugs. And the malaria program at SBRI is one of several, simultaneous efforts to identify the most promising vaccine candidates and follow through with clinical trials.

"They're not afraid to think big," Parsons said. "They've shown they're willing to make a large investment and take risks — and that's a very hard thing to do with other funding agencies."

But even the world's richest man and biggest foundation realized early on that they can't single-handedly cure all the world's ills.

Teaming with celebrities such as U2's Bono, the Gateses have tapped their own superstar status to educate the public about the staggering toll of diseases long banished from the developed world.

They've also discreetly pressured governments to increase spending and built connections with the pharmaceutical industry, said James Pfeiffer, of the University of Washington School of Public Health.

The strategy has paid off most in efforts to get vaccines such as whooping cough and polio to children in the poorest nations. The foundation gave its biggest grant so far — $1.5 billion — to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations. That donation helped spur five European countries to add $4 billion to the pot.

Scholarships and more

In education, the foundation has invested in two main areas: college scholarships and high schools.

In 1999, the foundation announced plans to spend $1 billion over 20 years to help low-income, minority students with strong academic records afford college. More than 9,000 students to date have received those scholarships through the Millennium Scholars program.

In 2000, the foundation's education director, Tom Vander Ark — a former businessman and superintendent in the Federal Way School District — launched a bold $350 million, three-year initiative to improve the nation's schools, one of the largest gifts ever made in education. Both initiatives were among the largest gifts ever made in education.

Since then, the foundation has narrowed its focus almost exclusively to high schools, an institution that Gates last year declared "obsolete."

Its grants stretch to 40 states, and it has helped create more than 1,900 new, smaller high schools to replace ones it says just don't work. In Washington state, it has made education grants totaling $328 million.

The foundation is credited with shining a much-needed light on the nation's dropout problem, clarifying the need to increase rigor in high school and prepare more students better for college and work.

"It would be difficult for me to imagine who has had more influence in education policy in recent years in America," said Marc Frazer, vice president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group.

Most education philanthropies "spread their money a mile wide and an inch deep," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University. But the Gates Foundation, she said, has done better by tackling a major problem with substantial resources over the long haul.

As the world's wealthiest charitable foundation, the Gates Foundation faces high expectations.

"It's not easy being the biggest kid on the block. Everybody watches what you do," said Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners Seattle, a philanthropic organization launched with technology wealth in 1997. And some wait for you to fall.

"I think your margin for error is smaller."

The foundation has responded by trying to learn from others and establishing clear goals for its giving. It has set rigorous standards in the way it approaches its giving.

"There is a great consciousness of being good stewards of all the resources they've got," Shoemaker said. "I watch what they do with a lot of admiration."

Seattle Times reporters Jolayne Houtz and Benjamin J. Romano contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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