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Bill Gates at the 92nd Street Y

November 13, 2009

92Y_Gates I had a chance to see Bill Gates being interviewed by Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief for The Economist and co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (read our interview with him here), the other night at the 92nd Street Y here in New York.

Security was surprisingly light, and the Y's wood-paneled concert hall offered a suitably dignified setting for the well-attended event, though both men walked on stage tieless and in good humor. Bishop, who devotes a whole chapter to Gates and the Gates Foundation in his book, almost immediately referenced the February TED talk at which Gates, to illustrate a point, released a swarm of mosquitoes into the audience. Then Bishop, to much laughter, pulled out a can of insect repellent and set it down on the table between them. (You can see the aerosol can in the picture above.)

From there, the conversation moved briskly. At one point, Gates, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin and with his own wealth, dismissed Bishop's suggestion that the global financial crisis had been caused by "the rich" and rejected the notion that he -- or any person of wealth -- should view philanthropy as a path to redemption.

Other takeaways from the evening:

  • It's possible but unlikely malaria will be eliminated by 2025; resistance and the evolving nature of the pathogen makes that difficult. At the same time, much is being done (bed net campaigns, etc.) to control the disease and limit its toll, in terms of deaths and lost productivity, in the developing world, and Gates expects that to continue.
  • Polio, now down to about 2,000-3,000 cases a year (most of them in Nigeria, India, and a few other places), is likely to be the second disease (after smallpox) to be eradicated from human populations. It is difficult, and expensive, to eliminate those last few cases, but it will happen.
  • An effective vaccine for AIDS will probably be the most expensive vaccine ever developed, and we're unlikely to see one in the next ten years, though maybe in twenty. But Gates is confident one will be developed in his lifetime.
  • Gates has no regrets about the foundation's focus on specific diseases as opposed to taking a more "holistic" approach to public health problems. As he told Bishop, in the developing world the first thirty days of life are where you lose the greatest number of children, and the diseases the foundation is targeting are responsible for causing many of those deaths. As you reduce the number of childhood deaths -- down from 12.5 million in 1990 to under 9 million today -- parents respond by having fewer children and spending more money on educating the children they do have. Lower birthrates and a better educated populace leads to more opportunity and economic growth, which feeds back into public health initiatives. So, Gates added, in a sense you could say our approach is holistic, in that everything we do is related.
  • Unlike governments, which change on a regular basis, or business, which tends to focus on the profit expectations of shareholders, foundations are well-suited to funding risky research and unproven approaches because they can stay the course over the many years and even decades it takes to achieve big, hairy, audacious goals (my phrase). And because of our assets and scale, said Gates, we have to tackle big problems.
  • It's easy to criticize the lack of clear, understandable metrics in social change work, but at the end of the day the field (i.e., foundations and their nonprofit partners) is pretty good at identifying and moving into areas where traditional market signals don't exist or have failed.
  • Entrepeneurship is inherent in human nature and will flourish when structural impediments -- corruption, lack of infrastructure and/or rule of law -- are removed. In the U.S., there are immense opportunities emerging for entrepreneurs in science-related fields.

Gates's final word of advice to other philanthropists in the audience (and there were more than a few there, including a couple of billionaire hedge fund types) was direct and to the point: Pick something you love and don't spread yourself too thin.

Come to think of it, good advice for anyone.

(Photo credit: Joyce Culver for the 92nd Street Y)

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   November 13, 2009 at 03:00 PM

Good summary, Mitch. While I agree there's no doubt the foundation's work is impressive -- and the scale of lives that might be affected is incredible, and there's no doubt about Gates' commitment and optimism -- it was surprising that Gates did not tell a single story the whole evening (even though he was introduced as a storyteller). It would have been so powerful had he told a story or two about what he observed first-hand, or even about some heroic effort done by an employee or grantee. That lack of a "human face" is a missed opportunity, especially for the large numbers of people who still don't understand what foundations do. Also, relying on numbers alone to communicate a foundation's work can numb people -- as was discussed in a Communications Network webinar this week with researcher Dr. Paul Slovic, who says stories stick, numbers -- well, they numb.

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   November 13, 2009 at 03:05 PM

Excellent point, Bruce. Gates struck me as someone who is more comfortable with numbers than narrative (a bit of a non-linear thinker, too). I'm sure his Communications people have worked with him over the years, but you and I both know it can be hard to teach a middle-aged dog new tricks.

Thanks also for the head's up on the Slovic webinar. Looking forward to checking it out.

Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   November 13, 2009 at 03:47 PM

Oops, bad link to the webinar with Paul Slovic. Try this.

Posted by Matt  |   November 13, 2009 at 04:33 PM

I liked the summary too. And the phrase "big, hairy, audacious goals." Perhaps Gates should borrow it and apply a Pacific Northwest treatment to it and call them "Sasquatch goals."

Posted by Terri McNichol  |   November 18, 2009 at 04:40 PM

Is there a transcript of the full interview available. I especially like the point that you came away with about metrics and would love to see the context it came out of:
You noted that Gates said "It's easy to criticize the lack of clear, understandable metrics in social change work, but at the end of the day the field (i.e., foundations and their nonprofit partners) is pretty good at identifying and moving into areas where traditional market signals don't exist or have failed."
Its a great point so thanks for including it in your blog.
Terri McNichol

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   November 19, 2009 at 10:09 AM

Thanks for the comment, Terri. Agree that the point Gates was making is an interesting one -- if an increasingly unfashionable one. I checked the 92nd St Y site for a transcript of the event but didn't find anything (I don't think it's their policy to post them). I'll call my contact over there to see if I can learn anything more.

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