The GiveWell Blog

The Holden Foundation: Serving obnoxious bloggers

You know what I wonder, late at night? I wonder whether if Bill Gates had gone the traditional route and created the Gates Foundation at the very end of his life, the Gates Foundation would have been devoted not primarily to education and health (as it is now), but to promoting computer literacy across the world. I think it could have happened, easily, if he’d been too old or too disengaged to be heavily involved: his philanthropic advisors and consultants could have asked “What does Bill Gates want?” and answered “Computer-related charity, because he was a computer guy.”

By thinking of themselves as “serving” him, they would have failed to do so – because they would have assumed his desires to revolve around “creating a legacy” and “fulfilling his personal values” in a narrow sense.

Instead, the Gates Foundation is just trying to help people as effectively as it can, however that is done. Gates is dealing with health and education because he thinks those are the biggest problems. The goal is broad and simple: make the world a better place. That’s what Bill Gates wants. Why wouldn’t it be?

I’m sure some people see charity as a way to please their vanity or create a legacy first, and a way to improve the world second. But is this as common as the world of nonprofit marketing seems to assume (and arguably, by assuming, to enforce)? The conversations I have about charity – including with wealthy people – invariably assume a common goal of helping people however that is best done. Unlike conversations about food or movies, these conversations really have almost nothing to do with personal (i.e., non-shared) values.

Anecdotally speaking, it seems that foundations whose funders are personally very involved (Omidyar, Skoll, Robin Hood, are almost universally broad in their missions. Their mission statements have little to do with their founders’ biographies; instead, they’re just pursuing what they think are the most effective means to helping the world. It’s the foundations with dead or disengaged funders that have the narrow, “personal” missions, trying to improve life for 5’11” blue-eyed men or whatever. With no evidence, I blame consultants and marketers who tried to “listen to the donor,” when they would have gotten further by listening to themselves.