Nation & World

‘To whom much is given …’

5 min read

For Melinda Gates, it’s not a cliché but a way of life

Melinda Gates is likely the happiest woman alive.

That is, if a recent study, co-conducted by a Harvard Business School (HBS) scholar, is any indication — it shows that people who spend money on others are happier than those who spend it on themselves.

Though the exact level of happiness of the former general manager of information products at Microsoft may be hard to quantify, her fierce dedication and passion for her humanitarian work were clear.

On Thursday, (March 27) Gates took part in a frank discussion about her role at the head, along with her husband, of one of the world’s most prolific philanthropic organizations.

Since its creation in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $16.3 billion in grants to programs that range from global health and development initiatives and the U.S. educational system. It currently oversees an endowment of roughly $38 billion. Its assets include a gift by billionaire Warren Buffet, who in 2006 announced he would bestow the majority of his fortune, in annual installments, to the couple’s foundation.

Listed on the organization’s Web site are its two driving principles: “All lives — no matter where they are being lived — have equal value,” and “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

The talk, in the School’s Spangler Auditorium, was delivered in conjunction with a two-day symposium on the future of social enterprise, the notion of using both for-profit and nonprofit organizations (and even combinations of the two) to bring about significant social change. Organized by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative, the series of panels examined topics such as how to fund such work and how to replicate it on a large scale. The two-day event was part of an ongoing yearlong series of colloquia in honor of the Business School’s 100th anniversary.

Gates engaged in an informal conversation with HBS alum Tom Tierney M.B.A. ’80, the chairman and co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a management-consulting firm for foundations and nonprofits. Tierney lived up to his promise to the crowd to ask Gates questions “we are sure you want to ask,” including those about balancing work and family life, her role in the organization, how she and her husband decide what to fund, and what it was like to receive Buffet’s massive gift.

Tierney began by reiterating one of the core values of Gates’ organization — that all lives have equal value — and asked the Dallas native where her own values came from.

A strong family foundation is key, said Gates, who was encouraged early on by her parents to “give back.” She and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, were both taught that helping others was paramount.

“We came to our marriage,” she said, “with these values already instilled. … There was no question for us that this set of resources that Bill had amassed at Microsoft was going to be given away.”

In choosing what to support, Gates admitted it’s never easy to say “no” to heartbreaking requests, but that it’s crucial to consider where the money can have the biggest impact.

Keenly aware of the advantages that attending top-ranked schools provided them, Gates said the couple decided to look closely at inequities in the U.S. educational system. They felt the nation’s early-education system was being funded in a way that high schools weren’t.

“The place no one seemed to want to tackle was high school … and we said that’s the place where we are going to focus in the U.S.”

Learning that millions of lives around the globe are lost each year to diseases that in the United States are easily remedied with readily available medication spurred the couple to focus on the the developing world.

When determining which health problems to fund, the pair regularly consults an annual chart that notes the mortality rates of specific diseases, as well as how particular illnesses sharply curtail a person’s healthy and productive life span. AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis top the list.

“We say, where are the biggest places that need change in the world and what is it we might impact?” Gates said. “We are the catalyst in many cases — or the voice for the diseases we’ve chosen.”

The mother of three, who cried tears of “unbelievable joy” after learning of Buffet’s decision to hand over most of his wealth to her organization, said the gracious donation has allowed the foundation to supplement its health programs by addressing issues such as the elimination of poverty.

The beauty of a big foundation, said Gates is its ability to take risks.

“We want to spend our money wisely, but we also want to take risks; we want to make big bets. You are not going to fix malaria by trying one vaccine at a time. … We need a portfolio of products, a portfolio of vaccines, knowing that of the 10 vaccines we are going to try for malaria, we are going to be lucky if we have one or two that hit.”

Inspired by a growing public interest in social enterprise and philanthropic work, Gates predicted that future solutions would come from the combined work of the private and nonprofit sectors and government institutions. Her organization and others like it, she said, help by shining a light on problems, bringing all parties to the table to talk about solutions, and funding a variety of efforts.

“Foundations,” she said, “can show a way or a plan [forward].”

Another key to success is finding talent that can make change happen. Bringing together people who have unique skills is critical, but so too is identifying where other talent may be found.

“You darn well better make sure that wherever it is that you are working on, you are working with the local and the regional people,” she said, “who understand the culture and understand the nuance and understand how to put these new systems in place.”