Skip to content

Big Philanthropy

Bill knows best

If you know the magician Derek DelGaudio, you know his famous card trick. As audience members make their way to their seats, they pick a card that compresses their identity into a single word or phrase. They might choose “I am a ninja” or “I am a freak” or “I am a nun.” DelGaudio produces high drama and wet eyes by guessing—or somehow knowing—who everyone is, especially when they take the opportunity to bear their souls. “I am a single mother.” “I am the one that got away.” “I am a nobody.” “I am an accident.”

Other audience members use the public spectacle to virtue signal, preen, or self-aggrandize before a captive audience. When Bill Gates attended a performance of DelGaudio’s show In & of Itself, a film clip of which is featured in the 2020 documentary of the same name, DelGaudio correctly guessed Gates’s chosen identity. It wasn’t “billionaire.” And it wasn’t “humanitarian” or “philanthropist.” Nor was it “technologist,” “entrepreneur,” or “expert.” Gates instead chose “I am a leader.”

Leader, of course, is a title that is normally given, not taken. Politicians are elected by their constituents; CEOs are vetted and selected by a board of directors. With no constituents or shareholders, who exactly is Bill Gates leading? And where does he imagine he is taking them?

As it turns out, Gates has a long and illustrious history of mistaking power for leadership. In the computer revolution, where he got his start, he operated under the mantra: “A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software.” This Big Brother-sounding maxim’s final form was one of the world’s most storied and embattled monopolies, which made Gates obscenely wealthy but also the subject of widespread ridicule, if not outright contempt. As antitrust litigation against Microsoft escalated in the late 1990s, people began to view Gates not as leading the computer industry but as stifling competition. Suddenly people were throwing pies at Gates’s face, while The Simpsons lampooned his monopoly-nerd overcompensation complex by having him instruct his goons to demolish Homer’s Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net startup.

Gates began the millennium, when the PR crisis was still at its height, with the launch of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, endowing it with $20 billion by the end of 2000. Over the years, and with no small amount of strenuous posturing on Gates’s part, the foundation’s media team turned one of the world’s most notorious corporate bullies into a softhearted philanthropist in a pastel sweater. Rather quickly, Gates went from being scorned as the greediest industrialist on the planet to feted as its premier humanitarian.

Behind the scenes of his second act as Mr. Nice Guy, Gates remained a devout monopolist, using charitable donations to take control of public policy. By flooding money into newsrooms, think tanks, universities, and advocacy groups, Gates can plant his flag in the name of generosity and claim dominion over a dizzying array of fields: clinics and laboratories specializing in so-called poverty-related diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis; agricultural development throughout Africa; or educational standards in the United States. Gates’s influence in these areas affects the lives of billions of people around the world, as well as the bottom lines of the many multinational companies with which the Gates Foundation commonly partners.

Despite—or because of—his immense power, Gates’s philanthropic crusades often hurt the very people he purports to help. “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need” declared the headline of a 2021 op-ed in Scientific American by Million Belay and Bridget Mugambe, both from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. The piece argued that Gates’s father-knows-best model of change, rooted in market-oriented and technology-focused solutions, is moving agricultural development in the wrong direction. Criticisms of colonial power echo widely across Gates’s charitable empire, as a growing body of his intended beneficiaries, alongside independent experts, describe Gates as less of a philanthropist and more of a feudal lord. From the teachers protesting Gates’s top-down imposition of testing and surveillance regimes in U.S. public schools to the public health experts around the world lambasting the foundation’s patent-forward partnerships with Big Pharma during the pandemic, the voices of Gates’s critics are legion, even if they are usually unaired by the mainstream news.

Arguably, the only area where Bill Gates can fairly call himself a proper leader is among the wealthy. He has long been at (or near) the top of the list of the world’s richest people; today he manages a $110 billion private fortune, alongside the Gates Foundation’s $67 billion endowment. Gates has also coaxed hundreds of other super-wealthy individuals to follow his lead into philanthropy. His first coup came in 2006 when the famed investor and Berkshire Hathaway head, Warren Buffett, started writing massive checks to the Gates Foundation, essentially trusting Bill and his then-spouse Melinda French Gates to handle his philanthropic legacy. “What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it?” Buffett said in 2006. “Who wouldn’t select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game?”

In 2010, Gates helped create the “Giving Pledge,” calling on fellow billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charity. Hundreds of tycoons and industrialists joined, relishing the spotlight and media attention their charitable promises generated. The American Prospect once criticized the Giving Pledge as a self-imposed wealth tax, a way for the ultra-wealthy to signal to Congress and voters that we don’t need to tax the superrich because they’re already giving their wealth freely to help the poor. Notably, the most aggressive wealth tax, proposed by Bernie Sanders, would take 8 percent of Bill Gates’s wealth each year, a far larger sum than Gates usually gives to his private foundation. No matter how much Gates gives in charity, it’s always a totally undemocratic distribution of wealth, essentially allowing Gates himself to decide how to spend his tax dollars.

The Giving Pledge is just one of a growing number of efforts that wealthy philanthropists deploy to advance their goal of protecting, conserving, and enhancing the privileges of the billionaire class by reminding us just how good they really are. The Gates Foundation has empowered an army of advocates to amplify this message, giving more than $500 million in charitable donations to groups that help advance the philanthropic sector’s interests, publicize its good deeds and big donations, and set the acceptable boundaries of debate. This includes charitable donations to The Guardian’s nonprofit arm to study “how philanthropy can support legacy and for-profit news,” and to the National Museum of American History for an exhibition on the role of philanthropy in leading social change (with unsubtle nods to the Gates Foundation). Meanwhile, Gates-funded scholars weigh in as independent experts on the Gates Foundation in the news media and academic research, using their platforms to laud Gates, offer mild critiques, or undermine actual independent research reports that look too closely at the gift horse’s haunches. Magnanimousness is its own reward, right?

Guided by Gates, billionaire philanthropy has increasingly become Big Philanthropy, a formidable special-interest group with its own lobbyists, academic centers, conferences, consultants, think tanks, and trade publications. While the Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropy in the United States, there are around a hundred thousand private foundations in operation, according to IRS statistics, warehousing a trillion dollars in assets. The endowments of these philanthropies generate billions of dollars in investment income most years, virtually tax-free, allowing Big Philanthropy to become even bigger.

These aren’t the only tax benefits that private philanthropy enjoys. Billionaires receive generous breaks and write-offs for their charitable giving. Tax scholars say that as much as 74 cents of every dollar that a multibillionaire donates would otherwise be paid in taxes. At the same time, philanthropists pressure rich nations to co-fund their charitable projects, as Gates has successfully done for decades, securing billions of dollars in public support for his foundation’s interventions. A dirty little secret of billionaire philanthropy is that it is highly subsidized by the taxpayers. Yet we get no credit for any of the good deeds produced with our money; all glory to the Gateses.

More importantly, we have little say in how the Gates family uses our tax dollars. There are virtually no checks and balances when it comes to private philanthropy and few meaningful requirements around transparency. Gates and his fellow billionaires have carte blanche to use charity as a money-in-politics tool, like lobbying or campaign contributions, but with virtually no oversight. In this perversely unregulated system, the richest people on earth pay the least in taxes and are celebrated as saints, even as their donations are directed to projects that advance their political interests, including enlarging the special-interest political power of the new philanthropist class. It’s an extraordinary entitlement, and Big Philanthropy knows it needs to vouchsafe both hearts and minds to lacquer its claim on these privileges, lest Congress get any big ideas, or, even before that, the public puts ideas in the head of its elected representatives.

The Brighter Side of Dark Money

In 2019, the Gates Foundation realized it had a problem. Television shows like Silicon Valley, Succession, and Billions were presenting charity as a political tool of the superrich—“an instrument of their privilege and an extension of their power, and not an authentically altruistic act,” according to a 2019 Gates-funded study from the University of Southern California titled “Charitable Giving in Mass Media.”

With no constituents or shareholders, who exactly is Bill Gates leading? And where does he imagine he is taking them?

The Gates Foundation, in the face of this growing PR problem, was well positioned to mount a counternarrative that shows the brighter side of philanthropy. The foundation donates hundreds of millions of dollars to newsrooms which reliably relay Gates’s charitable goals and massive donations. Significant resources also go into associating the foundation with celebrities and famous artists: producing educational programs with Lebron James, Stephen Colbert, and Barack Obama and commissioning original art and writing from Annie Leibovitz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to promote its work in public health. This summer, Bill Gates launched a podcast called Unconfuse Me, in which he has friendly conversations with public figures like actor Seth Rogen, musician Questlove, and New York Times columnist John McWhorter. Gates’s influence also happens in ways we can’t see. In 2009, the New York Times profiled the foundation’s growing role as a “behind-the-scenes influencer of public attitudes . . . by helping to shape storylines and insert messages into popular entertainment like the television shows ER, Law & Order: SVU, and Private Practice. The foundation’s messages on H.I.V. prevention, surgical safety, and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.”

A decade later, the Gates Foundation explored a more self-serving message, trying to improve media depictions of philanthropy itself. The 2019 USC study it sponsored imagined a consumer landscape with fewer shows like Succession and more like Downton Abbey, praised for using “charity as a method to identify those characters with prosocial qualities—characters who feed the poor or nurse the sick, for example.” Leaning on staff from the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates’s private office, Gates Ventures—alongside representatives from the Advertising Council, Disney, and Comic Relief—the USC study offers a rare look into what is, essentially, a brainstorming session by Gates and his partners on how to manipulate public opinion through the “agenda-setting function of mass media.”

“If I were Gates, and I were trying to figure out how to promote [charitable giving], how would I do it?” a former dean of USC advised. “I would lead a campaign that would broadly address some of these issues that I’m concerned about—empathy and cultural competence, cultural awareness, mutual understanding.” Others homed in on the media “disconnect between philanthropy and the concept of generosity.” One solution, the interlocutors seemed to agree, was to push narratives away from focusing on donors and toward recipients—not in a way that exploits or tokenizes the recipients, they cautioned, but one that allows them to tell their story and to counter media depictions that “people with wealth and power are making decisions for people with none.”

Of course, that describes the precise modus operandi of the Gates Foundation, which assembles a small group of elite experts at the foundation’s gleaming half-billion-dollar headquarters in Seattle to decide how to fix the problems of the global poor. Over the lifespan of the foundation, around 90 percent of all charitable donations have actually gone to organizations based in rich nations, which are then tasked with executing Gates’s charitable interventions in the day-to-day lives of the global poor.

The USC study shows us not only Bill Gates’s interest in tinkering with the optics around his foundation’s work but his desire to shape the narrative around the broader institution of charity itself. As long as questionable philanthropic ventures by the ultrarich create controversy—whether Donald Trump’s now-shuttered foundation or the Sackler family’s use of charity to distract us from their role in the opioid crisis—the legitimacy of the wider field of philanthropy will be vulnerable to criticism. For the Gates Foundation to really thrive, it needs to create a brand that transcends its own work, one that can broadly counter depictions of the billionaire class as amoral and self-interested.

One way the foundation has sought to do this is by collapsing the yawning divide between Big Philanthropy and small philanthropy, presenting billionaire giving as little different from the small charitable gifts that the rest of us make. In 2020, the Gates Foundation teamed up with the design firm IDEO to create the Better Giving Studio, “to help everyday donors by sharing innovative and inclusive digital solutions across the giving marketplace.” This includes the “Match Loss” messaging system that reminds workers about the availability of employer-matched donations, encouraging them to donate before the opportunity expires. A separate project Gates sponsored called AI4giving imagines “nonprofit organizations partnering with big tech companies” and creating “personalized communications for everyday givers.”

Ironically, the foundation’s most successful effort to connect with the public came through an old-school, low-tech gesture: passing the hat. Though for years the foundation avoided taking donations from anyone other than Bill and Melinda French Gates or Warren Buffett, it changed its mind in 2016 with the creation of Gates Philanthropy Partners, which actively solicits donations from the public. “Gates Philanthropy Partners staff have received heartwarming donations from kids’ lemonade stands to touching letters from individuals who are including the foundation in their will,” noted Jennifer Alcorn, a deputy director with the Gates Foundation and Gates Philanthropy Partners, in a 2021 interview with the Give Global Blog.

After raising around $20 million in both 2018 and 2019—more money than the vast majority of nonprofit organizations could ever imagine generating—the foundation decided to capitalize on the pandemic with more aggressive solicitations. “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $1.75 billion for work on COVID-19 responses globally. You can join us to advance this work by giving to our Combating COVID-19 Fund,” one solicitation noted. Pop icon Madonna gave Gates’s fundraising effort a major boost with a $1 million donation, announcing on Instagram that she had decided to “join forces with Bill Gates” and imploring others do the same. By the end of 2020, Gates Philanthropy Partners recorded $175 million in revenues from more than five thousand individual donors.

It’s a stunning new revenue stream for the foundation, one that raises striking ethical questions. Bill Gates, one of the richest people in the world, went hat in hand, asking regular people to help fund his philanthropic empire. During a global pandemic, when billions of people were having trouble with day-to-day expenses even in wealthy nations, why would an obscenely wealthy private foundation start competing for charitable donations against food banks and emergency housing funds?

Philanthropus Rex

The Gates Foundation generously funds dozens of organizations with the word philanthropy in their name. Among this vast body of nonprofit, white-collared groups, the Philanthropy Roundtable stands out for its unapologetic and aggressive political stances. The group spends millions of dollars lobbying the government and broadcasting a message of “philanthropic freedom,” i.e., the ability of billionaires to make tax-deductible, anonymous donations to influence public policy.

The foundation’s media team turned one of the world’s most notorious corporate bullies into a soft-hearted philanthropist in a pastel sweater.

“Anonymous charitable giving has a long and important history in philanthropy, stretching at least from the Biblical admonition ‘that your giving may be in secret,’” the group wrote in a 2017 press release announcing an amicus brief it filed in support of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the right-wing political advocacy group affiliated with the Koch Brothers. In an email response to press inquiries, the Philanthropy Roundtable pushed back on the idea that its work is organized around helping the rich rather than supporting the poor. “Philanthropy Roundtable’s entire mission is dedicated to encouraging generous Americans of all income levels,” the group said. “Our problems are too important to let the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric of recent years get in the way of people helping each other.”

It’s a sentiment that the group has also channeled in its attacks on “woke” philanthropy. “Philanthropy’s embrace of left-wing ideology is damaging and dividing America,” the group’s then-president, Elise Westhoff, wrote in the National Review in 2021. “Racial equity and social justice are often a cover for tearing some people down as much as lifting others up.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that some financial backers of Philanthropy Roundtable subsequently stepped away from the organization in protest. Not, apparently, the Gates Foundation, which was in the middle of a three-year $525,000 donation for “general operating support” to the group. (Gates sent over another $200,000 in April of this year; Westhoff stepped down in May.) The roundtable’s anti-woke politics might skew it as an odd bedfellow for the Gates Foundation, whose public-facing brand ferociously promotes its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but the simple fact is that Bill Gates has more in common with right-wing billionaires like Charles Koch—also a long-time supporter of the roundtable—than not. The two men’s most important cause, arguably, is preserving the privileges their great wealth affords them and pushing back on any efforts to regulate billionaire power.

In 2021, a group of tax experts and reformers worked with Congress to advance extremely modest new rules aimed at addressing some of philanthropy’s most egregious problems, such as when wealthy people pay their family members to run their private foundations. The proposed legislation also sought to restrict the tax benefits around “donor-advised funds,” which allow the wealthy to warehouse their fortunes in tax-privileged accounts for decades without actually giving away any money. “When the super wealthy claim charitable tax benefits, they are supposed to be putting their money to use for the benefit of society at large,” Ray Madoff, a law professor at Boston College, told the media as the legislation was moving forward. “The rules we set down about that are incredibly important at a time when there are more and more super-wealthy and greater and greater needs of society.”

A few groups working in the philanthropic sector supported the rules, including the Wallace Global Fund, the Ford Foundation, and Global Citizen (notably, a grantee and close partner of Gates). Yet Bill Gates didn’t take a public position on it. Some of Gates’s allies did. The Philanthropy Roundtable spent $560,000 lobbying against the bill, joining other Gates-funded organizations like the Council on Foundations, the Independent Sector, and the National Philanthropic Trust in criticizing the reforms. The bill failed. Had Gates put the substantial weight of his foundation behind the legislation, had he exercised his leadership position to offer a voice in favor of accountability, the outcome might have been different. Of course, doing so might have also opened the door to other reforms that could limit Gates’s philanthropic freedom.

The last time Congress substantively addressed problems with philanthropy was in 1969. The Tax Reform Act created important rules for tax-privileged foundations, including forcing them to pay out 5 percent of their endowments every year—essentially mandating that charities make charitable donations. More than half a century later, philanthropy and extreme wealth have changed substantially, and there is ample reason for Congress to revisit the rules governing Big Philanthropy. Making charitable foundations more transparent and accountable is an important political goal; so, too, is rethinking the tax benefits we lavish on the ultrarich for giving away small sums of money they don’t need and could never possibly spend on themselves. Yet we must also consider much broader questions. Why have we organized our society to allow people like Bill Gates to become so obscenely wealthy in the first place? And why would we then allow Gates to transform his wealth into unregulated political influence via philanthropy?

These are political questions that demand our attention now, not later. Hundreds of other multibillionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, have promised to follow Gates’s lead, directing their private wealth toward philanthropic causes. Counterintuitive as it sounds, the prospect of hundreds of billions, or even trillions, of dollars in new philanthropic spending coming down the pike is cause not for celebration but, rather, for concern. At a point, billionaire philanthropy is difficult to distinguish from oligarchy—allowing a small number of superrich individuals to play outsize roles in shaping the way the world works for the rest of us, from our public education to our public health. As practiced by men like Bill Gates, charity is an exercise of power, not an act of love; a threat to democracy, not a demonstration of leadership.