I grew up in a family where giving back to society—whether through volunteer time or financial resources—was just part of what you did. At the dinner table, both of my parents talked frequently about their volunteer work with non-profits and their advocacy work for children and the less fortunate in our community.
Community service was also an important part of Melinda’s upbringing; so even when we were still just engaged to be married, we talked about our responsibility to give back the great majority of our wealth—even though at that point we didn’t know exactly how or when we’d do it.
Anyone who wants to seriously engage in giving faces two important questions: where can you make the biggest impact, and how do you structure your giving so it’s effective.
Our viewpoint evolved over time, but there was a real turning point when we read an article about rotavirus, a disease that was pretty much a non-event in the United States, but which still killed a half-million children a year in the developing world. It seemed impossible to us that it was receiving so little worldwide attention. And so we dug in, learnt a lot more about the problem, and eventually began a serious effort to reduce childhood mortality worldwide.
Today, the framework that guides our giving is based on the simple premise that everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life. Given the resources at our disposal, we believed we could make the biggest difference by concentrating in three areas: global health, global development, and in the US, education.
Half our foundation’s funds are spent addressing global health problems, with a focus on malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, diarrheal and respiratory diseases.
Twenty-five per cent of the foundation’s funds assist the poorest people in the world in ways other than healthcare through development projects. And the other 25% is devoted to improving public education in the US, where, in spite of our nation’s great wealth, our education system continues to fail too many of our children.
A few basic principles guide the way in which we give. Our approach emphasizes partnerships, and looks to foster innovation, often pursuing new technologies or delivery schemes.
We try to apply new thinking and approaches to solving big problems, which sometimes means taking calculated risks on promising ideas. We set goals and are quite serious about measuring our results. Often, this means attempting to be a catalyst by investing in areas where governments can’t or won’t invest, or where there is a vacuum or failure in the marketplace.
Diseases that affect the poor are a great case in point. Rich-world diseases attract research investments that dwarf the money going to problems like rotavirus. (Think of how much more money goes to curing male pattern baldness than malaria!) As a foundation, we have the chance to help address that inequality.
The question of risk is something we think about a lot. Warren Buffett, our good friend and the third trustee of our foundation, reminds us that failure will be part of any bold approach. “You can have a perfect batting average by not doing anything too important. Or you’ll bat something less than that if you take on the really tough problems.”
We’re willing to accept failure at times in the name of trying new things to solve old and difficult problems.
At the end of the day, what draws people to philanthropy is something universal—the connection to other human beings and the desire to make a difference. This is what tugs at people and that makes them want to get involved, to imagine how they can help create a better world.
For me, philanthropy is a responsibility, a passion, and an honor. And so far as I can tell—after being a parent—it’s the most gratifying job on earth.
Note – An edited version of this post was published as part of the ‘Doing Good’ series on livemint.com.