Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the Criticism of the Gates Foundation

While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been subject to public and media criticism before, the recent uptick in critical coverage (starting with this article in the Washington Post) on its efforts to influence education policy are noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fact that shortly after the round of criticism, the foundation's stance took a sudden turn, with a call for delay in implementing "Common Core" education standards.

The purpose of this post is not to add or refute criticisms of the Gates Foundation's priorities or policies (I will leave that to others).  Rather, it is an attempt to provide some perspective on these criticisms.  In a world where many nonprofits face consistent scrutiny and pressure, the Gates Foundation has actually largely avoided the public eye.  Perhaps the nonpartisan mission of the organization and giving attitude of the founders has something to do with this.  Nonetheless, the lack of criticism is striking.  To provide context, consider these 8 nonprofits in the public eye (3 of which are private foundations): ACLU Foundation; Ford Foundation; Gates Foundation; Heritage Foundation; Livestrong; NRA; Planned Parenthood; and the Walton Family Foundation.

The next figure shows each of these organization's total assets (in millions) as of their most recent Form 990 tax filing.

The message: Gates has much more potential influence than any of these thanks to its wealth, with more than 100 times the assets of ACLU, Heritage Foundation, Livestrong, NRA, or Planned Parenthood.  Yet, many of these are constantly criticized and second-guessed (some seemingly have entire cable channels devoted to critiquing them).  For a rough view of this level of scrutiny, consider the number of google hits for a search on each organization's name and "criticism". The next figure presents the results of this exercise.

The message: despite its size, Gates receives much less criticism than most of the others.  In other words, what is surprising is not the recent spate of criticism and scrutiny the Gates Foundation's policies have garnered, but that it has taken so long.  Those at the Gates Foundation should expect more in the way of scrutiny and criticism, not less, in the coming years.  Their size and potential influence make this virtually inevitable.