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Gates Aims for Major Philanthropic Impact

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Mr. WARREN BUFFETT (Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.): I do not believe in inheriting your position in society based on what womb you come from. It isn't in keeping with my view of how the world should operate to create huge amounts of dynastic wealth.

INSKEEP: With those words, Warren Buffett formally signed away most of the fortune that he has amassed during decades of investing. Much has been made of the $30 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now consider this, that $30 billion will amount to only half of the assets that foundation has at its command. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports on one billionaire's faith in another.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

With his gift, Warren Buffett says a lot about himself and his trust and respect for the Gates Foundation. Buffett has described Bill Gates as the smartest man he ever met, and Buffett believes the foundation will do a much better job of investing his fortune to solve world problems than he could do.

Stacy Palmer, the long-time editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, says Buffett looked for efficiency and effectiveness.

Ms. STACY PALMER (Editor-in-chief, The Chronicle of Philanthropy): He very much looked at it in dollars and cents terms, and thinks that they are getting a lot of bang for their buck, and he is very impressed with the amount of results that they're getting for their dollars. And what he's hopeful is that when he combines his resources with theirs that there'll be a lot of ways that they can become even more efficient and even more powerful.

KAUFMAN: Buffett's gift will essentially double the foundation's giving to about $3 billion a year.

From its founding in the year 2000, the Gates Foundation has taken a results-oriented approach to big problems, chief among them, improving global health, and improving education in the U.S. The House initiatives have won the most praise; they focused on research, prevention and treatment for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and vaccine-preventable childhood diseases.

Helene Gayle recently left her post as head of several health initiatives at the foundation to become the CEO of CARE. Gail says the foundation's focus on measurable results forced everyone to think harder and more carefully about the outcomes of what they were doing.

Dr. HELEN GAYLE (President and CEO, CARE): Did we change behaviors that will lead to a reduction in HIV transmission? Were we able to get people on treatment who didn't have access to treatment before? Are death rates declining in Botswana as a result of more and more people having access to treatment? So, always measuring.

KAUFMAN: The Director of Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, Paul Schervish, adds that the Gates Foundation is not simply giving money to other charities; rather, it's creating its own philanthropic enterprises.

Dr. PAUL SCHERVISH (Director, Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, Boston College): You have this entrepreneurial philosophy where the donor not only contributes money, but actually effects the rate of return by personal involvement, the use of the donor's own personal skills and intellectual capital.

KAUFMAN: The foundation's health programs are both short-term, for example, getting children vaccinated, and long-term, things such as inventing new vaccines or creating more effective or less-expensive technologies for healthcare of its delivery. Staffers say Bill and Melinda Gates urge them to think outside the box and not be bound by conventional wisdom or limitations. Trevor Nielsen(ph) is another former foundation staffer.

Mr. TREVOR NIELSEN (Former member, Gates Foundation): It's kind of audacious, if you think about it, that we might actually end AIDS, that we might end malaria. If I think about what Bill brings to the table that is unique, it's that he is audacious. He believes these things actually can be solved.

KAUFMAN: And, says Nielsen, Bill Gates, like any good venture capitalist, is looking for leverage.

Mr. NIELSEN: You only need to look at vaccines and immunizations to understand their notion of leverage. Bill and Melinda looked around and saw that three million children a year die from vaccine-preventable diseases. They saw that with a big infusion of cash, those lives could be saved. And so they made the infusion of cash. They're picking things where, with big infusion of resources, a global change can be found.

KAUFMAN: Bill Gates recently wrote in an e-mail that vaccinations are a lot like software, the upfront costs are very high, but once you have a drug it can benefit everyone because of the low cost to manufacture.

The World Health Organizations says the foundation's work has already saved the lives of 670,000 children through vaccinations, and will save millions more in the coming years. The infusion of $30 billion additional dollars will likely mean many more lives will be saved or improved. What's more, the experts say, the success of the Gates Foundation has spurred other would-be philanthropists to step up and focus their money and know-how to make the world a better place.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman