Over the years I have tried to teach myself not to fire until I see the whites of their eyes, but yesterday’s New York Times column by Nick Kristof has pushed me over the edge for what it says about philanthropy—and how the media covers the sector. The column apparently follows an interview Bill and Melinda Gates recently gave to Kristof. It is an almost completely uncritical account of the self-described success of the Gates, and never mentions the Gates Foundation itself nor its thousands of employees in the fields of health and nutrition. Suffice it to say that if Kristof is reporting what the Gates told him about their medical successes, he needs to return to campus to take a course on the history of medicine, since his account of the failure of twentieth century foundation-funded medicine to eradicate disease is badly flawed.
For HistPhil what is interesting here is that Kristof appears to accept that the Gates Foundation is completely driven by the ideas of its technologist founders, who appear to live in a world in which they are the only knowledgeable and responsible individuals: “On the foundation, there’s always a lot of pillow talk. . . . We do push hard on each other.” Is it plausible to think that malaria will be eradicated as a result of bedroom or breakfast room chat? Kristof concludes that “among the lessons learned” is “Listen to your spouse!” That is doubtless sensible advice to any married couple, but what does it tell us about how to manage a mega-foundation?
I’ll bet that no reader of this column can name the wives of Andrew Carnegie (Louise), Julius Rosenwald (Augusta) or John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (well, perhaps you’ll know Laura Spelman since he named a foundation after her). And with good reason. No historian has ever suggested that their philanthropy was the product of their pillow talk. In itself this is a trivial point. It is clearly and impressively the case that Melinda Gates has become her husband’s philanthropic partner in a tangible and meaningful way. What is misleading in the Kristof account is the suggestion that the investment policies of a more than $40 billion philanthropy are so casually and personally arrived at. I think better of the Gates than to think that.
But the column inadvertently raises two important questions for the history of philanthropy: (1) What does it mean that there are only three trustees for the largest private philanthropic foundation the world has ever seen? (Warren Buffett is the third trustee, and he is surely a very wise person, but he does not appear to be involved in the management of the Gates philanthropic investment policy.) Isn’t it worrisome that we have come to the point that something like pillow talk can be described as the management technique of the world’s two most powerful philanthropic investors? I think it is. (2) What does it mean that so much of our knowledge about mega-foundations comes from fawning interviews in the press that encourage philanthropists to personalize and exaggerate their roles? Haven’t we gone from the negative reporting on Rockefeller and Carnegie to fawning coverage of today’s Giving Pledgers? This is something that both the press and historians need to correct.
-Stanley N. Katz
A co-founder of HistPhil, Stanley N. Katz is Lecturer with rank of Professor in Public and International Affairs and Director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University. He is President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, the national humanities organization in the United States.