Bill Gates: Focusing On Philanthropy

Bill Gates in India i i

hide captionBill Gates shakes hands with male sex workers during an AIDS prevention discussion in Chennai, India.

Prashant Panjiar/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates in India

Bill Gates shakes hands with male sex workers during an AIDS prevention discussion in Chennai, India.

Prashant Panjiar/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

With the recession having a negative impact on corporate earnings and philanthropy, Bill Gates plans to weigh in on Monday with his first annual letter about the work he's been doing since leaving Microsoft.

The inspiration for the letter about the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a fellow philanthropist, Gates tells Michelle Norris.

"My friend Warren Buffett encouraged me to share in a frank way where things are going well, what I was excited about, how I was finding the foundation world. And also talk about the setbacks — be frank in the way that somebody coming from the business world would be used to about what wasn't going well," Gates says.

He adds: "When he said that, I got very excited that I could start a dialogue — you know, let people send back e-mail and frame things for people that care about these issues. But it's always daunting to get in and say what's going on with AIDS, what's going on with polio and share my view of where the advances have come and my basic optimism that the additional resources going into these things are going to lead to some brilliant successes."

Q: Some people have compared your letter to Andrew Carnegie's famous article "Wealth" that appeared in the June 1889 issue of the North American Review and which is often referred to as the Gospel of Wealth, where Carnegie urges or even shames America's captains of industry to share their wealth ...

People of talent should try and get their money back to society while they're still alive. I think what I'd like to share with people is not shame but rather how exciting it can be. If you pick a few things where you really get to know them, you can have a huge impact.

Q: Are people less inclined to give money because they think that Bill and Melinda Gates are already pouring their fortune into the effort?

Fortunately, people are being more generous. There's a group called IAVI — the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative — that does AIDS vaccine research that's got more private donors to come along. I think as we make scientific progress, people see the success coming along. That makes them more interested in being involved. By increasing the visibility of the issues, we've had the effect that we'd hoped for which is that people really do care about these deaths.

Q: What are your thoughts on the timing of your departure from Microsoft just before the global economy collapsed and what are your thoughts about the first major layoffs announced by the company this week, when 5,000 people were given pink slips?

Microsoft's best days are certainly ahead because [of] the research and products and customer connections they have and the strength of leadership, starting with [Chief Executive Officer] Steve Ballmer. It's definitely not immune to this huge downturn that's taking place. Steve is doing the right things. I don't think I would do it any differently or any better, so I picked a time. I announced it several years in advance. And I always knew that company would have all sorts of twists and turns that they'd take on and do well with without my being there full time.

What's the biggest challenge for you in the next year?

Making sure that the crisis doesn't distract our partners from these critical long-term goals and getting the success stories out so that the momentum continues.

Full disclosure:The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the foundations that supports NPR.

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