Philanthropy in the News

Responding to Nick Kristof’s NYTimes Piece on the Gateses

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. 

5 thoughts on “Responding to Nick Kristof’s NYTimes Piece on the Gateses

  1. With respect, this Comment is unfair. The subject of Kristof’s piece was not the Foundation and how it works, but Bill and Melinda as philanthropists. The column was personal, not institutional, so there is no need for the anxiety here, much less the anger.

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    • I am sorry if you thought this angry. It was written in disappointment, not anger. Do you really think we can distinguish these philanthropists from their foundation. Kristof’s whole point is that they make all the meaningful decisions. I think that should evoke anxiety in anyone who cares about accountability in philanthropy.

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      • I apologize for sensing anger, in the assertions that major strategic decisions are made in pillow talk or breakfast table chat, or that malaria can be eradicated thereby, or that the Gates’ make all the decisions, or that they do not acknowledge failures, all of which are, as I understand the public record, well-known to be untrue. I was only trying to inject a bit of balance into the discussion, which is of course worth having.

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  2. Good points raised here, although I tend to agree with George’s comment about the goal of this particular column. You’re right on the larger question about criticism of foundations. However, to the extent there has been much criticism, the Gates Foundation has certainly been the top target, mainly for its ed work.

    Personally, I think one of the biggest critical question people don’t ask about the Gateses is why they have $80 billion in personal wealth sitting on the sidelines, in private investments, even as they urge other billionaires to give more and argue that greater giving translates almost mathematically into saving lives. What’s up with that?

    Warren Buffett has given more money to the Gates Foundation in the past decade than Bill and Melinda.

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  3. I think this is a fair point, David, though the Gateses certainly deserve credit for their existing generosity. One could also worry about how the endowment of the foundation is invested. As you know, that has been subject to criticism in the past. And I have been critical of Buffett in the past for his unwillingness to make his own philanthropic decisions. Indeed, his generosity creates, I believe, a new kind of problem for philanthropy — can any existing grantmaking organization adequately manage the huge annual payouts that the Buffett gifts force the Gates Foundation must now make. This is wholesale philanthropy on steroids.

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