[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 34 – Gates Foundation].

Dollar signs. When I was in Seattle in 2002 researching my Digital nations in the making book, I made contact with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), as I was aware of the role that foundations were playing in funding projects to tackle the digital divide. The Gates Foundation, already the largest in the world, had made substantial grants both in America and to support libraries in the UK – and was playing an even bigger role in developing countries to support health and disease eradication programmes.

With an asset base of $30 billion and donations of over $10 billion already committed, the Gates Foundation has made a very significant impact and is increasingly concerned to create partnerships which are effective at delivering specific objectives. It’s already geared up for giving with a staff of 280 and has plans for a new campus in central Seattle. It is likely to become even more interventionist now that Bill Gates has said that he will be devoting less time to his work at Microsoft. I left the city thinking I should keep an eye on developments.

I wasn’t prepared for the news story in the Wall Street Journal (26 June), which I found as I opened the paper two hours later on the way home on the plane. Warren Buffet, the second wealthiest man in the world had decided to enlarge the BMGF warchest by handing over $37 billion of his Berkshire Hathaway stock, on condition that it was to be used annually to fund $1.5 billion of donations in line with the foundation’s mission. The full text of his letter to the Gates makes very interesting reading. We are likely to be hearing much more about the BMGF’s work over the next decade. Although some may complain about the ‘corporatization of philanthropy’, it’s likely to be an effective way of getting things done and saving lives in many countries. Who can argue with that?

POSTSCRIPT: A fuller discussion of this can be found in the Economist (July 1st) cover story, “Billanthropy” and special report “The new powers in giving”, pps 73-75.