Bill Gates: Inspiring or Polarizing Philanthropist?

I’m a little fascinated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m not sure I can explain it, other than a) I always had a fleeting desire to work there, but apparently it is an intense environment with a high burnout rate and it is really not a friendly environment for working moms; b) it seems like a good area for MPH’s, a tribe which I have belonged to in the past and sometimes think wistfully about returning to; and c) it is funded by the richest man in the world– which kind of makes you wonder what goes on behind those walls? But don’t get me started at how I feel about all that money spent to build the new building.

The brand new Gates Foundation building

The brand new Gates Foundation building

This past Friday, twelve Gates Foundation employees came to spend the morning and part of the afternoon at the nonprofit, FamilyWorks, where I work as part of United Way’s Day of Caring, an annual event that sends employees of corporations and private companies to volunteer at nonprofits. Even Sue Desmond-Hellman, the new CEO of the Foundation, came by for about 45 minutes to help out. Bill Gates Sr. was supposed to make an appearance but couldn’t make it.

The Foundation employees helped to clean our resource center and worked at the food bank packaging food items and helping customers get food. It was fun coordinating the event and wish I had had more time to get to know some of the Gates employees a little better. I felt a little cynical about the whole Day of Caring premise. Sure, it’s great to get people involved in nonprofits, but it’s sort of an in and out approach with no real vision for continuing the relationship. And the fact that Desmond-Hellman was also in and out for her photo op… well, ok, she did contribute 45 minutes of her time.

An article in today’s Seattle Times articulated a lot of my thoughts about Bill Gates and his foundation. Basically, Gates, the richest man on the planet “intends to give away most of his wealth in his lifetime.” He has insisted that other billionaires (ie. Buffett) do the same through this “Giving Pledge”.  He is practically a full-time philanthropist and he has the power to put his money towards his interests (poverty, technology, education, etc. according to the article).

But here is the quote that got me nodding my head:

“Gates has a long running feud with Dambisa Moyo [an international economist], who questions whether billions in aid to poor nations actually deliver their promised results.”

Moyo is an outspoken critic of foreign aid– check out an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal that outlines some examples of how it has hurt, rather than helped.

I’ve long wondered this myself and feel cynical of the propensity of rich countries like the U.S. to throwing money at programs in less developed countries which can enable them to remain dependent instead of focusing on sustainability.

I had a great conversation with one of my food bank volunteers who had also been in the Peace Corps. For both of us the experience was life-changing, but was it life-changing for the people we served? Probably not. I fully admit in many ways being a Peace Corps Volunteer is self-serving for so many people. It’s just so easy to go somewhere, “make a difference” for two years, then you get to leave the problems there and come back home. I will say though, no matter how self-serving it may have been for me, I still feel a) I made a difference for a few of my students who were able to pass their exams and go on to university (which opens up so many doors); and b) that because of the decisions and choices I’ve made in my career and the way I live my life have made a difference.

I do struggle with the premise that people volunteer to make themselves feel better or because they want to add it on to their resume. Granted, there are people who truly want to help because it is the right thing to do… but I am finding it challenging to find those pearls as I recruit new people to volunteer at my organization.

 

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