Bill Gates is officially "transitioning" from Microsoft this week, but really, he checked out a long time ago. His Big Hairy Vision isn't just modernizing the world anymore-it's saving it. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's largest charitable foundation, with a current asset trust endowment of $37.3 billion. Last year, it gave away $2 billion. Its work is divided into three major programs: Global Development, Global Health and United States. It's not your average charity though-and not just because two of its three trustees, Bill and Warren (no last names needed) constantly jockey for the title of world's richest man. It's the smartest. And that's why it just might succeed.
Let's start with the goals of each program. The Global Health program is, no surprise, all about fighting disease, in two ways. One, making vaccines and medicine more readily available. Two, good ol' R&D to develop new vaccines—vaccine development and access takes up half of the Global Health program's money—plus treatments and other higher-tech solutions, the stuff that actually gets Bill excited now.
Global Development has three prongs, with the overarching mission of attacking poverty and hunger: Providing financial aid, spreading internet access as wide as possible, and helping small farmers with crop production and getting food to market.
The U.S. program is all about education, like its $1.37 billion grant to the United Negro College Fund via the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.
The foundation's goals don't sound so much different from anyone else's-they're big, lofty and impossible. What's so brilliant? They're not charging at the world's problems scattering its massive war chest around willy-nilly. They invest in solutions. Take access to clean water (or the lack thereof). The Seattle PI notes in a piece today that the foundation has spent years looking at the problem, but has yet to pump money into a major water project, because simply building pipes won't really crack at the root problem. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Global Development Program, says in the article that "what we look for is the project has to be scalable, sustainable and catalytic." (Its hardcore focus on vaccines makes total sense from this angle.)
In other words, it plants tons of little techno-seeds and showers them with love and money until they grow to be totally independent and self-sustaining, and doesn't waste its largesse on stuff that's a temporary fix. To keep up the plant metaphor, rather than hoping to grow a single, giant tree of awesome that stretches over all the problems they're trying to fix, they're planting a ton of little, carefully planned and managed trees to make a, um, forest of awesome. It's an approach borrowed from drug companies, which invest in lotsa different drugs simultaneously, not just one miracle drug at a time.
Not that they're cheap-in his person of the year story, Time says that the Gates spent 2005 "giving more money away faster than anyone ever has," It's just that every penny of it is invested with the same sharpness Bill applied to Microsoft in its golden days, so each one works as hard as possible, like the $1.5 billion grant for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
Above and beyond all of that, Bill's philanthropy is nudging other people to chip in. Most famously, Warren Buffet is giving most of his fortune to the Foundation because he believes in its goals and smart, practicable approach to charity. As long as Bill's got the passion-like he did for Microsoft in his past life-then yeah, he just might save the world.