The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Ford Foundation… each of these organizations represents some of the largest charitable foundations on earth today. With billions in assets under management, their reach is far and wide. They provide scholarships, impact world health, early child education and many other causes in a manner not easily achievable by the public sector. They are often the sole or major driving factor behind some of the biggest movements for good throughout our history. For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been the major driver in the campaign to eradicate Polio worldwide. The good these organizations do is undeniable, but is there a bad? Can there be controversy embedded in teaching young children, or curing debilitating disease?
Many people view the large philanthropic organizations of the world as purely do good organizations and they certainly are. However, as the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold of our political policies and everyday world views, a new light has been shed on the role of “big philanthropy” has on our governmental policies. Should the Bill Gates’ of the world be able to dictate world health policy? There is no denying that the stewardship of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, under the guidance of its namesakes, has put together a stellar record. These large-scale organizations carry the political and financial weight to tackle some of the world’s biggest and most existential problems. But where does the line of rich guy and elected official blur?
I recently became inspired by an episode of “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard”. On this particular episode the featured guest was Dr. Rajiv Shah the current president of the Rockefeller Foundation as well as a prior official of the Obama administration. During their conversation, Dr. Shah articulated the impact and flexibility of private organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation to help meld the private sector and government when it comes to disaster response, and impact investments. He brought a unique point of view to the conversation having been a key leader on both sides. Without a doubt the policies set forth by federal and state level leaders has tremendous impact. Often seen as generalized to the good of the people, the presence of campaign funding and dark political money raises the concern of whose agenda is being set forth by officials. Private charitable institutions certainly come with their own agendas, however, these are usually highlighted in their mission statement and founding philosophies for all the world to see.
In an article for the Economic Times, Naren Karunakaran writes, “The Gates Foundation’s sheer clout is taking it… to places where policy, business and philanthropy intersect”. Often times large private foundations rely on business investments to continue to grow their endowment and ability to carry out their philanthropic mission. But do these “for profit” investments run counter to the spirit of the philanthropic philosophy? Can an organization with for profit motives still make decisions based in the spirit of charity within the same sector? The Gates foundation is one of the largest proponents of GMO foods as an attempt to help end world hunger, but as Karunakaran goes on to note, “The 23.1-million-dollar investment in Mosanto (the world’s largest producer of GMO seeds) is a small example of a trend” of for profit investing by charitable foundations within the sector of their philanthropy. It does not go unnoticed however, that the economic power of these private foundations allows them to affect real change in the world, a topic Highlighted by Dr. Shah. According to Vox.com “The Gates Foundation spends more on global health every year than most countries”. This economic clout can help perpetuate key charitable initiatives that governments of developing companies and even here in the U.S. may not be able to mobilize with such efficiency and effectiveness. Yet the same article notes that “The first guiding principle of the Foundation is that it is ‘driven by the interests and passions of the Gates family’”. And as a private organization, the Gates foundation is truly only held accountable to its main trustees Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Warren Buffet.
The overarching theme of Dr. Shah’s conversation on the Armchair Expert, as well as a documentary featured on Netflix, “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates”, is that there can be a very useful and productive relationship between the public sector and private foundations. Dr. Shah used the production of Covid-19 testing as an example of private foundations identifying areas where government can use immediate capital investments to jump start operations while it enacts policy. Without a doubt the philanthropic good of private organizations such as the Rockefeller or Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has had generational impacts for good. Yet, as Bill Gates himself has noted, it still remains the responsibility of the people to hold the private foundations to the same ethical standards they expect of their elected leaders. While the lines of private foundation charity money and public interest remain somewhat blurred, we must ask ourselves if this is truly any different than the lobbying and electoral power of the world’s largest companies just without “the good part”?
The Political Muse