The Gates Foundation opens its gates, or a few windows

The new visitor center's vivid, heartfelt displays tell the story of the foundation's globe-spanning philanthropic ambitions, and of the enormous work that waits to be done.

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A window on the work done in the foundation offices behind.

The new visitor center's vivid, heartfelt displays tell the story of the foundation's globe-spanning philanthropic ambitions, and of the enormous work that waits to be done.

In February the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation opened its visitor center, and the public gained a clearer view of the wide-ranging work of the world’s largest philanthropy. The foundation is the centerpiece of Seattle’s position as an international hub of efforts to improve human health, expand educational opportunities, and reduce poverty and hunger in  the world’s burgeoning population.

The visitor center is adjacent to the two six-story buildings that compose the Gates Foundation’s headquarters campus just east of Seattle Center. These imposing, energy-efficient offices were completed and occupied in June 2011. A third is planned. The campus is not open to the public, but the center gives a sense of the work done by the almost 1000 employees who occupy foundation’s Seattle home and its offices in Washington, Beijing, Delhi, and London, and of the many other organizations funded by its grants.

The D.C. office signifies the foundation’s efforts to build strong partnerships with the federal agencies that provide foreign assistance. Both Bill and Melinda Gates have emphasized that private philanthropy cannot carry the full load, and that coordination with government programs is essential to improve global health and human development .

Since 1999, the Gates Foundation has spent $26 billion to fund more than 7,500 projects. In 2010 alone it disbursed $2.6 billion grants, supporting projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 100 countries. The foundation currently has an asset trust endowment of $34.5 billion, which is supplemented by annual gifts from Warren Buffet in the form of Berkshire Hathaway shares.

The visitor center’s exhibits show how the foundation’s concerns have evolved and expanded since its inception in 1994. At first it focused on improving public education in the United States, and improving high school graduation rates is still a major goal. Today improving global health is the primary focus, encompassing family planning, the development of new vaccines, and health care delivery.

The Foundation’s diverse efforts also touch on several of the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000. In addition to combating disease, the eight goals seek to end extreme poverty and hunger, reduce child mortality, improve nutrition, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, and build sustainable and equitable economies; clearly they are interrelated and mutually dependent. All eight are on track for achievement in 2015 or soon after.

The visitor center is designed to both educate and engage visitors by eliciting suggestions for improving humanity’s condition in the United States and abroad. Keyboards are provided to encourage people to contribute their ideas, and in some cases their criticisms of the foundation’s programs. Comments are directly posted on screens for all to see.

After viewing the exhibits, including several innovative technologies that the Foundation has helped develop, visitors are invited to indicate how they will personally support global development in one or more of its many facets. Pledge cards are available to take home as reminders.

The Gates Foundation can be its own toughest critic. One display candidly admits that its Small Schools Initiative, an early effort to improve high school graduation rates by reducing class size, “failed despite spending $700 million” over the course of a decade. Resources were redirected to an effort at boosting teacher support and improving teacher effectiveness.

But the foundation doesn’t hesitate to defend programs that have come under attack by others working on similar problems. One example: the application of biotechnology in the form of transgenic or genetically modified disease-resistant seeds to small-farm agriculture. Genetically modified organisms are an incendiary topic in the development community and among those who promote organic foods. But the Gates Foundation believes they can make a big difference in many developing countries, where smallholder farmers make up the majority of the population and food costs consume up to half of family incomes. Bill Gates takes on GMO critics in his most recent annual letter and in a press interview.

The foundation’s position is that poor farmers (and in Africa most rural smallholders are women) should be given the best opportunities to improve productivity, feed their families, and even export food commodities to generate income. A program it supports buys food from small farmers to replace food aid that is currently sourced from the United States and other wealthy nations.

More productive seeds are just one piece of the foundation’s African rural development program. Increased soil fertility, water for irrigation, and improved market access are others. In Asia, grants have gone out to support research in flood-prone regions where rice plants must survive being under water for extended periods.

Several Foundations programs reflect Bill Gates’ interests in information technology and innovation. An early program, the Gates Library Fund, was designed to bring free internet connections to libraries in developing countries. The Next Generation Learning Challenges, which the foundation funds in partnership with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, applies learning technology to improve college readiness and completion rates in the United States.

Last December, the Gates Foundation awarded MIT $3 million to develop a massively multiplayer online game to help high school students learn math and biology. The intent is to change the way science, technology, engineering, and math are taught in secondary schools, so that students pursue the kind of education and training that employers are seeking.

A new priority at the foundation is giving people tools such as wireless phone banking that build personal and family financial security. A display at the visitors center indicates that 90 percent of people in developing nations lack a safe place to keep their savings.

Meanwhile, in its core mission, the Gates Foundation has partnered with several Seattle-based organizations to solve some of the most intractable global health problems. Recipients of Foundation grants include PATH (the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the Infectious Disease Research Institute, and the UW’s Department of Global Health.

Since 1995 PATH has received 112 grants totaling $2.68 billion, including $183 million in 2009 grant to develop a successful vaccine against malaria, which kills nearly 1 million people each year, mostly young kids, and debilitates infected adults.

Polio shows how vaccines can end a world-wide scourge. Thanks to an intensive effort to administer oral vaccine to all children, India just completed its first full year without a single case of polio reported. Now the polio virus survives in just a few areas, in Nigeria, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Many locally based organizations are working on myriad challenges in the developing world eyond disease eradication, from education to clean water and micro-lending. World Vision, a large private charity headquartered in Federal Way, has received foundation grants for its global development work.

Global Washington, another local organization supported by the Gates Foundation, provides opportunities for all these groups to share information, collaborate, and, when appropriate, join in advocacy. It maintains a state directory of more than 350 academic centers, businesses, foundations, and nonprofits engaged in global development.

The Gates Foundation and its trustees have also spawned initiatives to advance global philanthropy. The Giving Pledge, initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in 2010, seeks to persuade other rich Americans to donate at least half of wealth to philanthropy. This effort has recently expanded to include wealthy individuals and families in China.

The walls of the visitor center display quotes that reflect the philosophies and interests of the foundation’s leaders:

From Bill Gates, “All lives have equal value.”

From Melinda French Gates, “Our role is to take risks that, if they pay off, could give millions of people a chance to make the most of their lives.”

From William Gates Sr., “This is more than saving people from dying. Our work helps us figure out the best ways to use our resources to fight inequity.”

And from Warren Buffet, “Don’t just go for the safe projects. Take on the really tough problems. Look for problems no one else has solved yet, despite their best efforts. And use research to figure out when we need to change direction.”

On a retaining wall outside the campus is a plaque that seems to best sum up the Gates Foundation’s aspirations. It quotes a very different local figure, the poet Theodore Roethke: “We need more people who specialize in the impossible.”

The Gates Foundation Visitor Center is an essential field trip for teachers, students, and others seeking a deeper understanding of global issues. It’s open Tuesday-Saturday from 10-5.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.