loren Eric Swanson: Bob Buford and Bill Gates Sr.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bob Buford and Bill Gates Sr.

From Bob Buford's Active Energy

A couple of days after the Ideas Festival, I attended an Aspen Institute Seminar on International Philanthropy. It was small and cozy by comparison with the massive Ideas Festival and the philanthropists came from Columbia, Costa Rica, London, and around the United States. One of my favorite, but seldom seen friends, the peripatetic Mort Meyerson, was one of a small group of twenty. He’s a prophet and genuine wise man. So I got to look at things from his perspective as well as my own. The first evening gathering featured an intimate reception and Q&A with Bill Gates, Sr. Of all the speakers I heard, he somehow was the most impressive – surprisingly warm and accessible, easy to talk to. He is a large man – perhaps 6’3”. I got to spend a few minutes talking directly to Gates during the reception and Mort got to spend a good deal more time. I want to attempt to convey the sort of person he was and to pass along some of the things he said. Mort sent me a copy of the e-mail he sends to his friends and family and, with his permission, I’ll let Mort speak first:

“He (Gates, Sr.) talked about their efforts in world health and U.S. education. He was extremely articulate and gentle. Here is a guy who was a lawyer and now runs a $60 billion foundation for his son and daughter-in-law. He is very plain spoken and looks the part of a elderly professor. I was quite impressed with his not being impressed with what he is doing or the success of his son. He is clearly religiously Christian and I felt this permeates the way he raised his kids and the values he tried to impart.”

I kept asking myself how can someone who runs a foundation larger than most governments be so warm and completely lacking in pretension? I took furious notes and here are some of the things that Gates senior said:

“There are things that happen in life that are really random. For example, we have all these vaccines and yet people are dying in Africa. The inequity is gross. One day, Bill sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Dad, maybe we could do something about this.’ That’s when our global health initiative started.” (I mentioned to Gates that his son had said in The New York Times, “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to cure the top twenty diseases.” Gates Sr. said, “Yes, I think that’s doable.” Amazing, no?)

“In our operations, we are very thoughtful about audits and accountability. There’s a larger emphasis on return of investment -- on follow-through and what are the results. You need to find out if what you are trying to do worked out.”

“We’re pretty much done with interconnecting libraries and moving on to other things. The education problem in the United States is of a size that appeals to Bill and Melinda. That’s the worse thing around and who is doing something to change it?”

“The business of philanthropy is thinking through the way to change something. It’s just this simple: You have some money, and you have some things you’d like to see different.”

I asked about Warren Buffett. Gates said, “I know him very well. He’s been troubled about the enormous wealth he has. He and Bill are intimate friends. They talk at least weekly. Their agreement is a solution to the troubles he has had about what to do with his fortune.” Here are some more of Mort’s e-mail reactions to the evening Q&A session:

“… At one point, Gates said he wanted to mention the 1,500 Millennium Scholars. … He said he went to a two-day meeting with them and when he saw them and interacted with them, it brought a different meaning to giving to him. (He then choked up and had tears in his eyes.) He said this was the gift of giving with active participation so just go out and give with your heart and be a participant. I felt connected to him at that moment more than at any other time during the evening as did most of the people in the room I suspect. He wasn’t different from you and me, just a father and grandfather talking about an activity that moves him.”

Mort and Gates had breakfast the next morning. Here’s his description:

“… I would observe that he was a nice man, a gentle man. He isn’t much different from you and I, except he has about $1 million a day to give away, with an eye to making the world a better place. He told me about how the foundation got started. He said that, about eight years ago, he talked to his son who said that people in town (Seattle) were saying mean things about him -- that he didn’t answer his mail about requests for funding. Bill Sr. said, “Why not give me all the mail? And I will meet with you quarterly or monthly and sort things out for you.” Bill Jr. said, “Good idea.” After a few months … Bill started giving along with running the business and, over time, must have come to a conclusion that there was a bigger destiny for him and Microsoft and Buffett’s investment company.”

At the end of the International Philanthropy Seminar, the participants were asked what stood out. More than anything else, it was Gates’ tears and show of emotion about what he was doing in philanthropy. I must say of all the speakers that I consumed in my very intense two weeks, that’s what stood out for me as well. The others were so cerebral.

I want to talk more in the future about what a remarkable innovation Gates and Buffett are fostering, but for now, while it is fresh on my mind, I just wanted to convey the emotional impact that the senior Gates had on me. He had a simple, direct power beyond his words – a power that emanated from his being. Quite affecting. I won’t see his like again soon.


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