As one might expect, Thursday's announcement that Bill Gates donated $5 billion to his family foundation made plenty of headlines. Not only did it vault the William H. Gates III Foundation to fourth place in the rankings of the biggest philanthropic institutions, with assets of $10 billion, but it is also believed to be the largest gift ever made by a living donor.
Eyebrows should be raised; Bill's still a pretty young guy. For years he's claimed that he would eventually give away the bulk of his wealth. If he lives up to his promise -- and this latest gift suggests he may well do so -- Gates may end up going down in history as the most magnanimous philanthropist of all time.
But where's all this money really going? Here's where the story gets intriguing. Gates has gotten plenty of grief for the hundreds of millions of dollars he's donated to his Gates Library Foundation; critics point out that it is obviously self-serving to stuff libraries full of computers running Microsoft software. But the William H. Gates III Foundation is a different kettle of financial fish.
The foundation is administered by Gates' father, William H. Gates Sr., a longtime philanthropist who once served as a national board member for the United Way. His primary interest, as demonstrated by the grants made so far by the foundation, is in funding family planning and reproductive health programs -- particularly in the third world. The foundation has also begun to spend aggressively on more general health-related issues -- such as the search for AIDS and malaria vaccines.
Last year, Gates Sr. told Salon that administering the $300 million or so that was then in the foundation was "a hell of a lot of fun." Now he has billions at his disposal. That's more than just fun -- that's the chance to make a real difference in millions of lives.