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Questions for Melinda Gates

October 26, 2010

Melinda_gates Deborah Solomon is an award-winning journalist, biographer (Jackson Pollock:
A Biography;
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell), and cultural critic. And, since 2003, she has written a weekly Q&A feature for the New York Times Magazine.

If you were looking for a single word to describe Solomon's Q&As for the Times, "quirky" would be as good as any. (A few years ago, "controversial" might have been a better choice.) She likes to poke and prod, isn't afraid of controversial subjects, and can dish out snark with the best of them. Sometimes it works; sometimes, not so much.

Her Q&A with Melinda Gates ("The Donor") in the most recent issue of the Magazine is an example of the latter. A snarky question about the Gates Foundation's focus on women's health in the developing world, a series of three questions designed to get Gates (who attended an all-girls parochial high school) to criticize the Church's stand on abortion, and this exchange:

DS: Do you own an iPod, which is made by Apple?

MG: No, I have a Zune.

DS: What if one of your children says, "Mom, I have to have an iPod?"

MG: I have gotten that argument -- "You may have a Zune."

DS: Do you have an iPad?

MG: Of course not.

DS: Is it true that Bill works on an Apple laptop?

MG: False. Nothing crosses the threshold of our doorstep.

I get it. Solomon's Q&As are infotainment, designed to be consumed quickly and without much thought before one digs into the meatier narrative journalistic pieces elsewhere in the magazine. But, really. Do you own an iPod? You can do better, Deborah.

In that spirit, I asked a few of my colleagues here at the center what they would ask Melinda Gates if she happened to drop by their office and had time to answer a question or two. Here's what we came up with:

  • What are the biggest changes you've seen in philanthropy since the Gates Foundation was established in 1994?
  • What's driving the boom in global philanthropy?
  • How long will it take emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil to establish philanthropic traditions that rival the tradition of philanthropy in the U.S.?
  • Does the Gates Foundation have too much influence in the areas in which it works?
  • How do you respond to critics who argue that, given its influence, the foundation should have more than four trustees?
  • Is there a succession plan in place for Warren Buffett and Bill Sr.? What if something happens to you or Bill?
  • What other foundations do you admire? How about nonprofits or NGOs?
  • What is the most critical issue not funded by the Gates Foundation that you'd like to see other grantmakers address?
  • Would you ever consider running for public office?
  • Given your wealth and the highly visible nature of the problems you and your husband have chosen to address through your foundation, how do you stay grounded? Where do you seek wisdom?
  • Do you ever get tired of all the attention and scrutiny you get paid?

It's a start. Now it's your turn. What would you ask Melinda Gates if you had a chance to ask her one question? Let's see if we can crowdsource the perfect interview....

UPDATE: October 27, 10:52 -- As reader Fred Silverman, VP of marketing and communications at the Marin Community Foundation, pointed out in an e-mail,  Solomon's third question about Apple products referenced the iPad, not the iPod (again). Bad typing on my part. I've corrected the mistake.

 -- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Lindsay  |   October 26, 2010 at 03:43 PM

The Foundation outsources a lot of their program research to consultants and other for-profit companies, spending millions a year on this. Why does the Foundation pay for-profits over non-profits? Do you feel that non-profits are incapable of doing the same research or are they too inefficient? If the goal of the Gates-Buffet Pledge is to spend the money on philanthropy, wouldn't you want the money to go to a non-profit? Why don't you just hire staff to do the research for you?

It's sad that Solomon missed yet another opportunity to get some meat in her Q&A.

Posted by Gates Keepers  |   October 26, 2010 at 09:42 PM

Good questions, Mitch. But is an NYT weekly tease-piece the best place to get answers? How do you intend to get answers to your questions from Melinda?


Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   October 27, 2010 at 11:03 AM

Good questions, Lindsay. I think I have to take the next step and actually try to secure an interview with Melinda. Should it come to pass, hope you don't if I "borrow" one or two of your questions.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   October 27, 2010 at 11:05 AM

You're right, GK, it's not. So I think the next step is to try to secure an actual interview with Melinda. I'll keep you and others apprised, through the blog, of any progress on that front.

Posted by Chris_Halasz  |   November 02, 2010 at 01:19 AM

Good questions! (I'd love to see her answer them, too.)

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