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Gates Philanthrophy Follows Long US Tradition

The issue of philanthropy in America received much media attention recently when Warren Buffet, the world's second richest man donated more then $1.5 billion to the charitable foundation run by Bill Gates, the world's richest man. The gift set off speculation that the Gates foundation could change the landscape of corporate giving, by adapting a creative corporate approach to charity and inspiring a new era of corporate giving. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports, Bill Gates is not so much revolutionizing a private sector approach to charitable causes, as he is following in a long tradition of philanthropy in America.

After seeing the devastation caused by AIDS in Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation pledged $500 million to help get HIV drugs to more than 500,000 people. And they have vowed to do more. "AIDS is getting worse every year. We need to provide the latest drugs. We need to provide intervention and so that crisis has become a top priority for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation."

Friend and fellow billionaire Warren Buffet was so impressed with the work of the Gates Foundations that he donated $1.6 billion to the cause. "It was clear that an outstanding mind with the right goals was focusing intently with passion, heart on improving the lot of mankind around the world without regard as to gender religion, color, geography, just doing the most good for the most people."

Gates and Buffet are the latest in a long line of wealthy American philanthropists. In the early 1900s industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller set up the model for the modern day non-profit foundation. Their organizations were structured like corporations but their goal was to serve the public good. Their initial projects were building libraries and hospitals.

Stacey Palmer, editor of the weekly newspaper Chronicle of Philanthropy, says these early industrialists were intrigued with trying to solve age-old problems with new-age science and technology. "There was also this feeling in society that we could change things. We had scientific ideas about how to change the world and we were really learning about ways to do that. So modern social science came into being and philanthropists seized on that right away."

This corporate science-based model of philanthropy has not been free of controversy. Until the 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation funded eugenics programs in both the U.S. and Nazi Germany supporting forced sterilization of persons with genetic defects. Critics say Hitler later used this research to justify the killing of Jews and other races he considered inferior.

While this case was extreme, William Shambra, director of the Center for Philanthropy at the Hudson Institute, says foundations often overreach when trying to solve the root causes of social problems. "It would be lovely to get to the root cause of the problem and solve it once and for all and put it behind you, and move on to the next big problem, and get on to the next root cause, but that is not how it happens. You can't name a single major social problem in the United States that hasn't been tackled by a big foundation in the 20th and the 21st centuries, and you can't name a single problem that has been solved."

Shambra says foundations operate best when they work with grass roots [locally run] organizations to alleviate human suffering. He says this is what the Gates foundation is doing. He also says foundations must guard against what he calls "corrupting flattery" from people looking for money. "It is hard to find truth tellers in philanthropy. Foundations, there are all sort of jokes. You know, once you become a foundation program officer, all your jokes are funny; all you observations are witty and accurate. All your questions are just excellent questions."

One of the great advantages of private philanthropic organizations is the speed in which they are able to respond to a crisis. After hurricane Katrina, churches and private charities were providing relief long before government assistance arrived.

Still, the Chronicle for Philanthropy's Stacey Palmer says foundations cannot replace government's responsibility in addressing long-term needs. "Sometimes people say why doesn't a philanthropist just take care of the health insurance crisis because so many people do not have health insurance in this country. But there isn't enough money in philanthropy in a year to take care of that kind of thing. So there needs to be governmental solutions to some of those kinds of problems."

In addition to the good works they do, Palmer says Bill Gates and other philanthropists also influence public policy by focusing worldwide attention on important social problems and solutions.