Bill Gates’s First Annual Letter on Life at the Foundation: “I Love the Work”

Bill Gates says he loves his new job at his charitable foundation. The co-founder of Microsoft says so this morning in his first annual letter, posted online, sizing up his nonprofit work.

Gates left his full-time job at Microsoft in June, to devote his full attention to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charitable foundation. He insists he finds this mission—to wipe out modern global health plagues, boost global economic development, and reduce disparities in U.S. education—to be just as exciting as running one of the world’s most valuable companies.

“Many of my friends were concerned that I wouldn’t find the foundation work as engaging or rewarding as my work at Microsoft,” Gates wrote in the 19-page letter. Even though he reveled in the challenge of leading the software company, “I love the work at the foundation,” Gates wrote.

Now that he has a few months under his belt, friends shouldn’t worry that he’s getting restless, because Gates sees some of the same “magical things” happening at the foundation that he did at Microsoft.

Just like at the company, there is an opportunity for “big breakthroughs.” Like at the company, he can use his skills of “building teams of smart people with different skill sets” to tackle long-term problems. And also like at the company, he’s anything but bored. “I find the intelligence and dedication of the people involved in these issues to be just as im¬pressive as what I have seen before,” Gates wrote. (He discussed these thoughts in a video interview with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof over the weekend.)

Like at the company, there’s also plenty to worry about, starting with the economic crisis. The foundation lost about 20 percent of its assets in 2008, which is actually quite a bit better performance than the NASDAQ Composite Index and the S&P 500, which dropped 41 percent and 38 percent on the year, respectively. Even though the foundation lost billions, it will increase spending from $3.3 billion in 2008 to $3.8 billion this year, about 7 percent of total assets. This will drain the foundation’s assets more quickly than the amount it is required to spend annually under federal law, but Gates says that’s not a concern.

“The goal of our foundation is to make investments whose payback to society is very high rather than to pay out the minimum to make the endowment last as long as possible,” Gates wrote.

Here’s what Gates had to say about the three specific areas of the foundation’s interest, global health, global development, and U.S. education:

—The foundation steers about half of its total spending toward improving global health, focusing on about 20 diseases. One of the key goals is to reduce the number of childhood deaths from 10 million a year to less than 5 million a year. “At the foundation we are getting even more focused on our top health priority, which is helping to make sure that vaccines are developed and delivered to fight these diseases. With a handful of new vaccines, we should be able to save a year of a person’s life for well under $100,” Gates wrote.

—The foundation added a focus on boosting the economies of developing countries about two years ago. About 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day, an estimated 900 million suffer from chronic hunger, and most of the poor live in rural areas of developing countries, Gates wrote. The foundation is investing in new seeds and fertilizer to help improve agriculture so that more people can create enough wealth to support themselves. This could be a catalyst to improving education, Gates wrote, because farming families are more likely to put their children in school for longer periods of time when agriculture productivity rises. It all sounds great, but Gates acknowledges that poor people around the world are also likely to bear the brunt of global climate change, with floods and droughts bringing new hardships for agriculture.

—On U.S. education, Gates says that the country’s goal should be to ensure that 80 percent of students graduate from high school “fully ready to attend college,” by 2025. “This goal will probably be more difficult to achieve than anything else the foundation works on, because change comes so slowly and is so hard to measure,” Gates wrote.

Interestingly, one of the biggest differences about the new job is that he now works closely with his wife, Melinda. “I met her at Microsoft, but we didn’t get to work together as peers like we do now. She and I enjoy sharing ideas and talking about what we are learning. When one of us is being very opti¬mistic, the other takes on the role of making sure we’re thinking through all the tough issues,” he wrote.

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