The Gates Foundation: Microsoft’s ‘Charity’ (Part 2 of 3)

Although Bill Gates now has one philanthropic foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this foundation has its roots in two of Gates’ earlier philanthropic projects: the first of these foundations, the William H. Gates Foundation was formed in 1994, while the second, the Gates Library Foundation was formed in 1997. These two initially separate foundations were then merged in 1999 to create the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Understanding the complete backgrounds of the Gates Foundations’ is critical to comprehending the political nature of their work, thus the following sections will briefly introduce Bill Gates’ two initial philanthropic forays before moving on to study the Gates Foundation proper.


The William H. Gates Foundation


Formed in 1994 by Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates, with an initial stock gift of about $94 million, the William H. Gates Foundation was managed as the name of the foundation suggests by Bill Gates father, William H. Gates Sr.[1] Presently acting as the co-chairman of the Gates Foundation, Gates Sr., has independently of his son, had a successful career establishing one of Seattle’s leading law firms, Preston Gates and Ellis (which in 2007 became K&L Gates), whose work is closely tied to Bill Gates’ corporate/philanthropic network. Gates Sr. is also a director of the food giant Costco where he sits on their board of directors alongside Charles Munger, the former vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (see later). In 2003, Gates Sr. cofounded the Initiative for Global Development, which is a national network of business leaders that ostensibly champion “effective solutions to global poverty.” The dubious level of commitment this group has to truly solving global poverty can perhaps be best ascertained by the fact that the two co-chairs of the Initiatives leadership council are the two former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and Colin Powell. Albright, Powell, and Gates Sr. also serve as honorary chairs of another arguably misnamed ‘democracy’ promoting project called the World Justice Project which happens to obtain financial backing from two key weapons manufacturers, Boeing and General Electric: this project also receives support from Microsoft and the Gates Foundation amongst others.


Gates Sr. is also involved in other charitable ventures as he serves as a director of the United Way of America; while his late wife Mary Gates was also linked to the United Way as she formerly served as chair of United Way International. Similarly, Microsoft’s former executive vice president of Law and Corporate Affairs, William Neukom, chairs the Gates Challenge Endowment Campaign of the United Way of King County.[2] Neukom who is president-elect of the American Bar Association, also serves alongside Gates Sr. on the advisory board of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, and when he retired from Microsoft (in 2002) he joined Preston Gates and Ellis as a partner – where he now chairs K&L Gates’ board of directors.


In 1995, with the William H. Gates Foundation’s offices located in Bill Gates Sr.’s basement, Gates Sr. invited the longstanding birth control/population activist Suzanne Cluett to help him distribute his foundations resources, and she then remained with the Gates’ philanthropies, as associate director of global health strategies, until her death in 2006. (Here it is important to note that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ have a long history of promoting population control research around the world in line with U.S. imperial interests – for more on this see Part 3.) Prior to joining the Gates’ philanthropies, Cluett had obtained much experience in population control related programming as she had spent 16 years as administrative vice president for the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) – a group that was founded by Gordon Perkin in 1977, and had retained her as their first ever employee.


Describing itself as an “international, nonprofit organization that creates sustainable, culturally relevant solutions, enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycles of poor health”, PATH had in 2006 a total income of just over $130 million, of which 65 percent was derived from foundations – most of which it obtained from its major funding partner the Gates Foundation. In 1995, PATH’s president, Gordon Perkin, was first approached by Gates Sr. for his advice on family planning issues: this relationship then blossomed over the years and eventually, in late 1999, Perkin’s stepped down as PATH’s president and became the head of the Gates Foundations new global health program. However, this was not the first time that Perkins had directly worked on population control issues for liberal foundations, as in 1964 he joined the Planned Parenthood Federation of America as an associate medical director (a group that was well supported by Ford and Rockefeller monies), and just two years later he moved to the Ford Foundation to work on population issues in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Mexico and Brazil, where he stayed until he created PATH in 1977.


Given that the two key policy advisors recruited by the William H. Gates Foundation first worked with the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), it is interesting to note that another PATH board member, Steve Davis, formerly practiced law with Preston Gates and Ellis, is a former chair of United Way of King County, and presently serves as a director of Global Partnerships. The latter group, Global Partnerships, is yet another group that says it is dedicated to “fight[ing] against global poverty” through capitalist friendly microfinance schemes, and has recently begun working closely with the Grameen Foundation (another microfinance group that receives major funding from the Gates Foundation).


The Gates Learning Foundation


Founded in 1997 as the Gates Library Foundation, this philanthropic endeavor was formed in the foundations own words, to “bring computers and Internet access to public libraries in low-income communities in the United States and Canada.” In 1999, the foundation then changed its name to the Gates Learning Foundation.


Prior to its merger into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Learning Foundation was headed by Patricia Stonesifer, who is presently the CEO of the Gates Foundation: however, prior to joining the philanthropic world, Stonesifer worked for Microsoft Corporation (1988-97), and also ran her own management consulting firm. Stonesifer currently sits on the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution, alongside other notable elites like Alan Spoon (the former president of Newsweek), Walter E. Massey (who is a trustee of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), Bill Frist (who is a director of the National Endowment for Democracy), and the vice-president of the US, Dick Cheney. Stonesifer was also formerly a director of the Seattle Foundation, the Alaska Air Group (1998-2000), and the CBS Corporation (1999-2005), and presently sits of the board of directors of At Amazon, Stonesifer is joined by fellow board member John Seely Brown, who also serves as a director of the MacArthur Foundation, and as a founding trustee of the CIA venture fund In-Q-It, Inc.


Other than Patricia Stonesifer’s own excellent media connections it is also worth mentioning that her husband, Michael Kinsley, was the founding editor of Slate (a position he held for six years). Slate is an online magazine that used to be published by Microsoft, and was subsequently sold to the Washington Post in 2004. This change of ownership is particularly noteworthy because Melinda Gates presently serves on the Washington Post Company’s board of directors, as does Warren Buffett – a powerful individual who now helps direct the Gates Foundation alongside Melinda and Bill (see later). Like his wife, Kinsley is also well connected within media circles as he formerly edited The New Republic, and in 2006 he was recruited by the British-based Guardian newspaper to ‘spearhead’ their expansion in America. Also worth adding is that in 2003, the present editor of Slate, Jacob Weisberg, co-authored a book with Robert Rubin titled In an Uncertain World: this is significant because the current president of the Gates Foundations global development program, Sylvia Burwell had formerly acted as Chief of Staff to Robert Rubin while he served as President Clinton’s treasury secretary.


Prior to the 2000 merger directors of the Gates Learning Foundation, other than Patricia Stonesifer and Bill and Melinda Gates, board members included Gilbert Anderson (who at the time served a trustee of the Seattle Public Library), Vartan Gregorian (who was, and still is, the president of the Carnegie Corporation), and William H. Gray III (who was the president of the United Negro College Fund from 1991 until 2004, and presently sits on the public advisory committee of the Population Institute, and as a director of the Rockefellers’ JPMorgan Chase since 1992). Considering the extensive links that exist between Gray’s United Negro College Fund and various liberal philanthropists, it is important to briefly consider the history of the Fund’s work.


Founded in 1944, with critical aid provided by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,[3] the United Negro College Fund describes itself as America’s “largest and most successful minority higher education assistance organization” having distributed over $2.5 billion of grants since its creation. Crucially, the Fund has obtained massive support from liberal foundations and in 1999 alone they received over $1 billion from the Gates Foundation. It is also perhaps strange that in 2000 UNCF received $1 million from the world’s leading military contractor, Lockheed Martin Corporation, while recently retired chairman of Lockheed Martin, Vance D. Coffman, has also served on the board of directors of the Fund.[4]


Returning to the Gates Learning Foundation, their former director of strategy and operations, Christopher Hedrick, formerly managed the national philanthropic programs for Microsoft, and was “responsible for developing the growth of the company’s partnership with the United Negro College Fund”, and also happens to be a former treasurer of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health. In 1999, Hedrick founded the consulting firm, Intrepid Learning Solutions, and it is significant that Nelson A. Rockefeller, Jr. (the son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller) acts as their executive vice president, while their board of directors includes amongst their members Steve Davis (see earlier).


Finally in late 1998 Terry Meersman worked for the Gates Learning Foundation as director of finance and administration. Meersman had worked in philanthropy for many years, and amongst his many jobs he formerly served as the venture fund program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts – a major funder of environmental projects which has been heavily critiqued by progressive commentators.


 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


In 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates created the sensibly named Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Based on the stated belief that “every life has equal value” the Washington-based Foundation was established, in its own words, to “help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world.” The Gates Foundation points out that 15 guiding principlesreflect the Gates family’s beliefs about the role of philanthropy and the impact they want this foundation to have”, thus it is important to briefly examine these principles to get an idea of the type of the work that the foundation believes it is engaged in.


Many of the Gates Foundations 15 guiding principles suggest that the foundation respects the role of the community in dealing with social problems, thus they observe that: “We treat our grantees as valued partners, and we treat the ultimate beneficiaries of our work with respect”; “We treat each other as valued colleagues”; “We must be humble and mindful in our actions and words”; and crucially they note that “Philanthropy plays an important but limited role.” Yet as one might expect of the world’s largest foundation there are limits on the respect they have for the beneficiaries of their work, as although they suggest that philanthropy should play a “limited role” this is not borne out by the fact they in 2007 alone the Gates Foundation distributed over $2 billion. Indeed other principles that guide the foundations work which suggest their acknowledgement of a social engineering role for the foundation include: the foundation will be “driven by the interests and passions of the Gates family”; “We are funders and shapers”; “Our focus is clear”; “We advocate—vigorously but responsibly—in our areas of focus”; and “Meeting our mission… requires great stewardship of the money we have available.” Thus given the huge amounts of money involved it is hard to reconcile the foundations vision of itself as “funders and shapers” with their final guiding principle, which is “[w]e leave room for growth and change.” Clearly the Gates Foundation is a powerful force for change, and judging by the previous historical achievements of the major liberal foundations, it is likely to be a rather antidemocratic and elitist force for change.


 People and Projects


As noted previously, in 1999, the William H. Gates Foundation and the Gates Learning Foundation were consolidated into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At this critical time in their development the Gates Foundation was co-chaired by William H. Gates, Sr. and the foundations CEO Patty Stonesifer. Other executive committee members included Jack Faris (who is a former member of the steering committee for the Initiative for Global Development and serves on the board of United Way of King County), Richard Akeroyd (who had been with the Gates Learning Foundation since 1997), Allan Golston (who joined the foundation in 1999 and is now their U.S. program president), Tom Vander Ark (who joined the foundation as their executive director for education), Terry Meersman, and Gordon Perkin (see earlier),


Since the formal consolidation of the Gates philanthropies in late 1999 the most significant change at the Gates Foundation has been the massive influx of capital that they received from Warren Buffett. So the important question to ask is: “who is Warren Buffett, and what his connections to the Gates’ family are?”


Warren Buffett is the CEO of the investment company Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (a position he has held since 1970), and as mentioned earlier he presently serves alongside Melinda Gates on the board of directors of the Washington Post Company.[5] This Gates/Hathaway/media connection is further bolstered by the presence of Thomas Murphy and Donald Keough on Berkshire Hathaway’s board, as until he retired in 1996 Murphy was the CEO of Capital Cities/ABC (which was brought by the media Disney that year), while Keough presently serves as a director of IAC/InterActiveCorp. Bill Gates also joined Berkshire Hathaway board of directors in 2004, while former Microsoft employee, Charlotte Guyman, presently serves on Hathaway’s board as well. Finally, Charles Munger, who has been the vice chair of Berkshire Hathaway since 1978, currently sits alongside William H. Gates, Sr. on Costco’s board of directors.


In part, the close working relationship that exists between the Gates’ family and Warren Buffett helps explain why in 2006 Buffett announced that he was going to leave most of his substantial personal earnings from Berkshire Hathaway – that is, $31 billion – to the Gates Foundation. To put this donation in perspective, at the time of the announcement, the Gates Foundations – which was already the largest liberal foundation in the world – had an endowment that was worth just under $30 billion. Thus as one might expect Buffett now plays an important role in helping direct the work of the Gates Foundation (although to date he has not been officially designated any specific position).


Other critical people, other than actual members of the Gates family or their CEO Patty Stonesifer, that currently fulfill what are referred to as ‘leadership’ positions at the Gates Foundation include the three presidents of the foundations major programs, Allan Golston (U.S. programs), Tadataka Yamada (global health programs), and Sylvia Burwell (global development programs), their chief financial officer Alex Friedman, Connie Collingsworth (who serves as their general counsel), Martha Choe (who is the chief administrative officer),  Heidi Sinclair (who is the chief communications officer), and Geoff Lamb (who is the managing director of public policy).


 …The final and concluding part of this article will examine the concerning links that exist between the Gates Foundation, biotechnology companies, population control strategies, and the ‘new’ Green Revolution.


Michael has just submitted his doctoral thesis, and is currently co-editing a book with Daniel Faber and Joan Roelofs that will critically evaluate the influence of philanthropic foundations on the public sphere. His other work can be found here. This article was presented as a refereed paper at the Australasian Political Science Association conference.




[1] In 1999, the William H. Gates Foundation was renamed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the foundation moved from offices located in Bill Gates Sr.’s basement to a site in Seattle (Washington).


[2] The president of United Way of King County, Jon Fine, also serves a director of Alliance for Education. The Gates Challenge Endowment Campaign was initiated in 1999, when the Gates Foundation gave a special $30 million grant to United Way’s endowment fund. The Gates Foundation has noted that it aims to further bolster this endowment as it has pledged to match Gates Challenge donations dollar for dollar.


[3] Gasman, M. 2004. ‘Rhetoric Vs. Reality: The Fundraising Messages of the United Negro College Fund in the Immediate Aftermath of the Brown Decision.’ History of Education Quarterly, 44, p.74.


[4] The late Christopher F. Edley Sr., who served as the president of the United Negro College Fund from 1973 to 1990, had prior to this appointment acted as a Ford Foundation program officer.


[5] Ronald Olson also serves on the boards of both the Washington Post Company and Berkshire Hathaway.

Leave a comment