The world’s largest foundation said it was “doubling down” to hand out more money than ever this year, while also responding to criticism that it wields too much power with little accountability.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to give away $8.3 billion in 2023, an estimated 15% increase over its 2022 payout, the foundation’s chief executive officer, Mark Suzman, said in an annual letter.
“This puts us in the privileged position of being able to give away more money than any other philanthropy,” he wrote. “It also raises an important question we hear often: Does our spending, along with the doors that it opens, give us too much power and influence?”
As the world’s largest foundation, the Gates Foundation is a frequent target of critics who say it holds too much sway in setting global priorities while being accountable to no one.
Suzman took the opportunity to address some of those criticisms, writing, “One critique we hear a lot: ‘Why are a couple of unelected billionaires setting the agenda for global health and development?’”
He continued, “Yes, our founders are billionaires. But neither they, I, nor the rest of our board of trustees set the world’s agenda; as a foundation, we respond to it.” Suzman said the Gates Foundation’s goals are guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Suzman said in the letter that the Gates Foundation’s outsized power can be a force for good in the world. “It’s true that between our dollars, voice, and convening power, we have access and influence that many others do not,” he wrote. “It’s also true that we are able to act in ways that others cannot. Because of this, we can call attention to and help find solutions for problems that otherwise might be neglected.”
Suzman also echoed a common argument about the value of philanthropy, saying that unlike private companies and elected officials, philanthropists have more flexibility to take risks. “And because our foundation doesn’t need to make a profit like corporations do or provide immediate results like governments do or raise funds like many NGOs do, we can make high-risk bets on novel solutions that may take a decade or more to pay off,” he wrote.
Founded in 2000, the Gates Foundation uses its $53.3 billion endowment to try to eradicate diseases such as malaria and improve the lives of people living in poverty, especially in developing countries. It also works to improve gender equality globally. In the U.S., it focuses on K-12 education and postsecondary education. One of its current goals is to improve math education in the U.S.
The Gates Foundation has played an influential role in shaping national education policy in the U.S., including helping establish the Common Core set of academic standards. Some education policy leaders have disagreed with the foundation’s role in shaping school curricula, and one expert raised questions about the Gates Foundation’s latest emphasis on math education in U.S. public schools.
“It is so fundamentally misdirected and so obviously wrong, both in the moral sense and in the rational sense, that it is literally breathtaking,” Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the National Education Policy Center, told the Associated Press. “This very wealthy, very narrow man can continually, continually torment schoolchildren while all the while pretending that somehow he’s making the world better.”
Suzman told the AP that the foundation partners with teachers, students and schools to help improve educational outcomes, and tries to do its work without forcing ideas on schools.
The Gates Foundation is one of several philanthropic organizations that stepped up its spending early in the pandemic. Typically foundations are required to hand out 5% of their assets each year toward philanthropic goals, but some promised to spend more than the required minimum as multiple crises emerged in 2020. Foundations had more wiggle room to do so then, when a booming stock market swelled their investments. The Gates Foundation announced last year that it would increase its annual payout to $9 billion by 2026.
Until recently, the foundation’s board of directors consisted of just three people: Microsoft
co-founder Bill Gates; his now ex-wife, Melinda French Gates; and Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway
In the wake of the Gates divorce, Buffett resigned from the board and the foundation added six new board members.
Like many tech billionaires, Bill Gates saw his personal fortune shrink in 2022 as markets took a dive. He donated $20 billion that year to his foundation so it could increase its spending, and said he plans to eventually drop off the list of the world’s wealthiest people. His current estimated net worth is $103 billion, according to Forbes.
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates remain co-chairs of the foundation. Melinda French Gates has her own philanthropic ambitions, and may leave the Gates Foundation this year under an arrangement the couple announced during their split. Her current estimated net worth is $6.7 billion.