By Mark Michael

Back in June, billionaire investor Warren Buffett announced that he was resigning as a trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffett, who is 90, gave no particular reason for his decision, and said he will continue his substantial contributions to the foundation’s work. But the announcement came about a month after the Gateses announced their pending divorce and revelations surfaced about Bill Gates’s sexual harassment of a member of his staff.

Trustees resign from foundations all the time, but the Gates Foundation, which holds $49.8 billion in assets (a number higher than the GDP of around 125 of the world’s nations), has had only three trustees for years: Buffett and the two now-divorcing Gateses. Bill and Melinda subsequently announced plans for negotiating leadership of the foundation during the next two years, and for adding additional independent trustees to the board.

The Gates Foundation has done an astounding level of good since being launched in 2000. Bill Gates is the world’s most generous philanthropist, hands down; by the age of 44, he had given away four times as much, in real terms, as John D. Rockefeller did in his entire life. Programs supported by the foundation’s grants have made major strides in eradicating polio and malaria, enhancing crop productivity, and developing non-sewered sanitation systems, among many ambitious projects.

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But the foundation has also made some major missteps, especially in its quickly abandoned effort to overhaul public education in several of America’s most troubled cities. The Gates #metoo-type scandal raises another series of questions about reputation whitewashing, and even the possibility that the foundation’s largesse, like that of the opioid-crisis-plagued Sacklers, could be viewed as tainted money.

As Paul Vallely documents extensively in his massive and magisterial Philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, the successes and liabilities of the Gates Foundation’s work are characteristic of the “philanthrocapitalists” who play an outsized role in contemporary philanthropy, as the ranks of the super-rich have grown worldwide. The Gates Foundation searches for interventions that effectively address high-profile humanitarian issues, like malaria or poor sanitation. It pours massive amounts of money into the interventions, and then scales up the response using best practices from the business world. It doesn’t just seek to help polio sufferers, but to eliminate polio — and programs supported by its work have cut worldwide case rates by 99.9 percent in the last 30 years.

Some criticize the foundation’s penchant for quick, measurable, tech-driven interventions over systemic problems. It funded, for example, an Indian vaccine campaign that used two million staff administering 170 million polio shots to Indian children in two days, but largely ignored needs for healthcare infrastructure and solutions to chronic diseases. The foundation’s agricultural solution for Africa focuses on genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers, forcing subsistence farmers into Western-style cultivation while ignoring a global trade regime that makes it more difficult for poorer countries to compete.

Others worry about the disproportional influence wielded by the foundation in the areas where it chooses to intervene, and that a tendency toward groupthink and hidden decision-making stifles the exchange of views that could ultimately result in more effective solutions. A top civil servant responsible for an East African country’s health ministry, when asked what his country’s health priorities would be in five years’ time, reportedly said, “Don’t ask me, ask Bill Gates.”

Vallely points out that, while the scale of Bill Gates’s philanthropy may be groundbreaking, his approach is characteristic of one of the West’s oldest strains of thought about giving. The ancient Greeks and Romans were impressed by lavish gift giving and lifted up constructing public buildings and sponsoring festivals as a sign of civic-mindedness and an opportunity for the giver to gain honor for himself. The ancient pagans, with a few exceptions, found the poor revolting, hardly worthy of gift giving, and the bread and circuses doled out strategically by the state were mostly a means of social control.

A different tradition emerged out of Judaism, with its emphasis on God’s generosity and the creation of all in his image. Israel’s laws sought to secure their dignity and those who could give were obliged to do so, for the good of their own souls and the unity of God’s people. A complex set of social institutions aimed at relieving the most vulnerable grew up in Jewish communities in the centuries just before Christ, as did the notion of redemptive almsgiving: that giving for the poor atones for sin and secures God’s favor, a concept assumed by Jesus’ teaching on the subject in the Sermon on the Mount.

The early Christians were formed by this Jewish tradition, eventually brokering a modus vivendi between the Church and the earlier pagan ways as the Church became the West’s most socially formative institution. The benefactions that had once built hippodromes and sponsored tragedies now financed parish churches, monasteries, and a complex system of charitable institutions, focused mostly on the poor, who were valued as God’s special friends, powerful in their intercession.

Most Westerners, Vallely points out, understand this medieval social system through Protestant polemics about buying salvation and Enlightenment worries over haphazard organization. Most modern Western philanthropists have kept the Christian emphasis on caring for the poor, but see them more as problems to be solved than as fellow sufferers.

Most have also wanted to keep an old Roman grip on the causes for which their money is spent, and to earn a name in the civic record for themselves. Americans especially seem to think that philanthropists can solve problems, tied up in the myths they tell about their rise to success. Andrew Carnegie, the union-busting industrialist turned philanthropist whom Gates claims as his personal hero, built thousands of libraries to help enterprising poor boys study their way to the top. But Carnegie was a social Darwinist with a pagan contempt for the indigent, and a disinclination to support religious colleges until they severed church ties. Gates, the garage tinkerer turned business whiz, is characteristically sure that more research and carefully calibrated delivery systems will answer our greatest problems. If it worked for him, why wouldn’t it work for everything else?

Vallely believes that the cure for much of what ails contemporary philanthropy is a recovery of the democratic, humble approach of the Judeo-Christian tradition, transposed into a secular idiom. He lifts up person-to-person crowdfunding (which saw a big boost during the pandemic) and reciprocal philanthropy projects that emphasize open dialogue with those who receive assistance and carefully monitor long-term effects. He evenhandedly notes that Bill Gates, under Melinda’s influence, has become much more ready to listen and to change course in recent years, though the pending divorce may make this less likely in the future.

An epilogue charts some possible ways that the pandemic might shift philanthropy. Writing a few months into the crisis, Vallely was hopeful about a rekindled sense of social solidarity, and anticipated a reckoning with the abuse of social power that drove much of 2020’s racial justice movement.

He also grimly notes that another worldwide pandemic, the Black Death, decisively altered Western philanthropy, in ways that hardly bred reconciliation in the wake of shared suffering. The Black Death effectively shattered Western Christendom’s infrastructure for dealing with the sick and suffering. Though some were moved to repent and return to the Lord, a secular spirit prevailed.

The plague’s high death toll led to dramatic increases in wages, and a much greater suspicion of the poor, a scorn of begging, and the development of complex systems to prove their worthiness and set them marching out of public assistance. The medieval love for God’s little poor ones had grown cold long before it was subjected to Protestant critique.

In the wake of the Great Resignation, with nearly constant grumbling about the difficulty of finding low-wage workers, we may well be heading in exactly the wrong direction. If recession still lies ahead, will the poor be blamed yet again? This moment pleads for deeper attention to what Vallely calls “the soul of philanthropy.” Christian witness, drawing from the deep wells of biblical teaching, can play a timely and dynamic role in the current crisis, blessing the poor and reconciling humanity anew.

About The Author

Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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Lorna Harris

Thank you for this – very thought-provoking especially as we are in the midst of a stewardship program at our church.