Most of the biggest American philanthropists are dead and gone without knowing whether their choices were the right ones. Not Bill Gates. As Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports, he wants to play a big part in deciding where his money will go.
In one particular hour, around a conference table at the Gates Foundation's Seattle offices, $330 million dollars worth of grant money was up for grabs.
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are doing the giving. And when you ask Gates why he's giving away his wealth, he tells you that he's come to understand just how much good his money can do. "The programs we have in place today will save over a million children's lives per year," Gates says. "And it's a number that's almost so large it's hard to relate to, you know. I could say to you, 'We saved a child's life.' And you could say, 'Wow, that's great. You saved that child. Let's go look at that child.'"
To Gates, that justifies giving away millions, even billions of dollars, sometimes in a single grant.
"We have an opportunity to change the world, and if we ever forget it, Bill reminds us," says Patty Stonesifer, co-chair of the foundation.
Stonesifer used to make money for Bill Gates as a Microsoft executive. Now she helps him give it away, with the same motivation, she says, that she had in her old job: "We feel like there's that same sense of urgency, that same sense of, 'This is the time for improvement in health around the world.' The science is accelerating at an incredible rate," she says. "And the time is now, when we have an unprecedented level of prosperity to act."
Gates' father, Bill Sr., and Stonesifer run the foundation together, with the help of science experts Dr. Gordon Perkin, a world health expert, and Dr. Bill Foege, a former head of the CDC.
Requests for funding from all over the world arrive at the foundation on an average of 300 a month. But only one in 100 will get a "yes."
Says Stonesifer, "We concentrate on global health and on libraries and education here in the U.S. and Canada. That means that many good projects, for building new hospitals, for opening senior centers,...are programs that given our strategic areas, we can't fund right now."
It's a tough lesson she's had to learn on the job. When Stonesifer retired from Microsoft - a multimillionaire at age 40 - she planned to spend more time with her teen-age children and sit on some corporate boards, including that of CBS. But at her retirement party, her boss lured her back to a job for which she takes no salary, and for which she had absoluely no experience.
Stonesifer remembers the foundation's somewhat humble beginnings: "We were above a pizza restaurant, and it was myself and an assistant. So it was entry level, except for that we had the opportunity to have a bigger checkbook than most people above the pizza restaurants have."
Up above that pizza parlor, the new philanthropists early on focused on an area they were very familiar with: computing. They decided to spend $200 million putting computers into every library in the country. "We've been in libraries that have been located in people's homes, in gas stations, in converted jail cells," says Stonesifer.
Almost every day, new computers arrive in towns like Grand Falls, Texas, population 583, and other places where the "digital divide" is as wide as the Rio Grande.
"What we're doing...insures that the child in southern Texas has access to the same encyclopedia (as) the child (who) can reach the main library in New York City," says Stonesifer.
It's not just hardware and software. The Gates Foundation provides the training to go with it. Stonesifer calls the staff of more than 100 cyber-savvy road warriors the "Internet Peace Corps." They're halfway to plugging every library into the Internet.
Each step of the way they've learned something new. Three years after the library program began, Gates said he was naïve to think computers could solve all the problems; they don't do much for poor people with dying children. So he's tackling global health.
During his most recent vacation, Gates took a crash course on the subject. His beach reading included The Evolution of Infectious Diseases and The Coming Plague.
He's translated that research into an enormous investment in world health, spending $50 million toward the effort to wipe polio from the face of the earth. Vaccines are the main focus, but Gates has given billions to programs covering issues from maternal health to AIDS research.
Gates often sends out Stonesifer to investigate firsthand how these programs work. Last March she went to India for a national immunization day as more than 100 million children were vaccinated against polio in makeshift clinics all over the country.
The polio vaccine has been available to American children for more than 40 years, but it's only now reaching children in remote places around the world. And this program is a model for distribution of many other vaccines.
"Vaccines are almost magic. They're very inexpensive. They're very effective," says Stonesifer. "(A) sick child can't get an education no matter how good the school is. A sick adult can't hold down a job no matter how good the economy is."
A philosophy has emerged over time that guides their choices. They look to attack root causes, not just symptoms. Stonesifer recounts the fable of four women who come upon a river full of drowning babies:
"And the first oman says, 'Oh, my God. We have to save these children.' And she jumps in...and is able to bring one child to shore. And the second woman...sounds the alarm. More people jump in; some more babies are saved."
"The third woman stands on the shore and actually starts teaching the children to swim."
"The fourth woman turns and marches upstream...and she says, 'I'm going to go up and find out who's throwing these babies in the river.' And so that's what we go back to in the foundation all the time - that we have the opportunity through our resources to kind of go back upstream and try to see what is it that is causing these babies to be in this river."
It's also important that the grants have a ripple effect. The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, launched last year, made available $1 billion to help minority students pay for college.
"These are the kids (who) are going to set the example, and other kids are going to aspire to do what they do," says Gates. "We did that program on a large scale so that we really could effect some change, and get, you know, a lot of kids thinking, 'I can be a role model.'"
The $21 billion endowment earns interest annually, which funds all the grants large and small. The smaller grants go for mostly local causes, like the $50,000 targeted for Seattle's Chicken Soup Brigade, which delivers meals to HIV shut-ins.
Stonesifer and Bill Gates Sr. can sign off on these small grants - spending up to a million dollars. Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, weigh in on the big-ticket items.
Nothing gets by Bill Gates without intense scrutiny, like when there was a decision to be made on a $25 million AIDS grant that seemed to be more about studying the problem than actually intervening to do something about it.
"You look through how the dollars are spent,...and they say they're going to measure a lot of stuff," says Bill Gates. "I guess it's not cheap to do that, but it didn't read like an intervention."
In the end, the $25 million grant was approved, just a fraction of the billion dollars Stonesifer says the foundation gives away each year.
The richest man in the world plans to give away almost his entire fortune in his lifetime and says that his being in the right place at the right time shouldn't benefit him alone.
He says, "I certainly don't think it's good for a society when you have somebody whose skills just matched what the era required and who built something that got to be super popular, had this big - big positive impact. Those resources should go back to the people in society who haven't been as lucky."