To introduce you to an extended whingefest


We wish that this was satire, or perhaps even the ravings of some poor deluded soul well outside the mainstream. Unfortunately it is neither: this whinge that Bill Gates really shouldn't be spending his own money how he wishes is meant to be a serious contribution to the debate:

Is the most effective philanthropist a dead one? It’s a morbid question, but also a pertinent one. Are large philanthropic organisations such as the Ford, Rockefeller or Gates Foundation able to achieve the most good with a living benefactor who is in the picture on a regular basis, providing expertise and political leverage? Or are they better off once a benefactor is long gone, permitting staff to operate free of the constraints of donors who, however well intentioned, may hinder effective decision-making?

To recast that question, which is the better organisational style? One of the most intelligent men of our generation (yes, Gates is, fearsomely intelligent) directing an organisation attempting to do good or the usual bureaucrats that fill up any organisation after a generation or two having meetings about whether there's sufficient diversity in the snacks offered at meetings to discuss which snacks should be served at meetings?

To pose the question that way is to answer it of course:

We need to challenge this silence. We need loudly to ask an uncomfortable question: do foundations narrow wealth inequalities or simply preserve them? Are foundations at their most radical when they exist to serve a benefactor’s hopes and whims – or when they’re emancipated from such an obligation?

After their founders had died, the “big three” foundations in the US – Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie – started to sympathise with labour and civil rights movements. Detractors frequently criticised them for being too anti-capitalist; Ford’s grandson Henry resigned from the foundation in protest in 1977, stating in a revealing letter that “a system that makes the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving”. At least Henry Ford had the honesty to state which side he was on. We should challenge his modern successors to be as upfront.

The answer being that such organisations should serve the interests of the bureaucrats that run them not the wishes of the founder. The argument against Gates is that he doesn't allow that long march through the institutions its head, he insists that the organisation do what it was set up to do: alleviate disease and poverty in the most effective manner possible. That this doesn't suit the bureaucrats is why they hate him and it.

Just to illustrate how far the decline reaches the thoroughly sensible, originally, Joseph Rowntree bequests now fund Richard Murphy to think big thoughts in his shed.

It is for this reason that Warren Buffett has insisted that his, very generous, donations to the Gates Foundation must be spent immediately, before such institutional degradation into a home for the socially just happens. And why the Gates Foundation itself talks about specific tasks now that it wishes to achieve, rather than gabfests that will produce a "legacy". That is, let's get rid of all the money before the funds become "emancipated from such an obligation" to actually achieve anything, or even any oversight. As with the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief campaigning in the UK, where there is no famine, Barnardo's, a system of childrens' homes campaigning in a country without such private childrens' homes, Stonewall campaigning for equal rights long after equal rights have actually happened.

C. Northcote Parkinson really did have a point, the prime purpose of any bureaucracy is to make sure that the bureaucracy itself survives. All else is subservient to that. At which point we might suggest Worstall's Corollary to the Peter Principle: all useful philanthropic work is done before the socially just or the bureaucrats take over the charity.