The Philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates
A Process Interpretation and Appreciation
We Live in an Innovative Universe
Throughout my careers in software and philanthropy a recurring theme has been that innovation is the key to improving the world. When innovators work on urgent problems and deliver solutions to people in need, the results can be magical.
--Bill Gates letter to the Gates Foundation in 2012
You are now in a website called Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism. Jesus represents kindness and community. Jazz represents creativity and innovation. Buddhism represents a sense of interconnectedness.
Chances are good that you've never heard of our website but that you are familiar with Bill and Melinda Gates. Perhaps you admire them for their philanthropic work.
We do, too. That's why we are writing this article, linking their work with our own.
JJB is developed by a team of people in different parts of the world who are influenced by the organic philosophy of the late philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Some of us are in China, some in Korea, some in Europe, and some in the United States. Whitehead's philosophy offers a cosmological interpretation of the big history of which Bill Gates speaks in the video on the left. It simultaneously lends support to the work of the Gates Foundation in two ways:
First, from Whitehead's perspective, we live in an innovative universe. The universe is not a completed fact but rather an ongoing journey, amid which there is a creative advance into novelty. Moment by moment, molecule by molecule, galaxy by galaxy, there are innovations.
Scientists speak of these innovations as random variations of existing patterns; Whitehead adds that the random variations are actualizations of new possibilities. They are innovations. In Whitehead's words: "The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe."
Second, from Whitehead's perspective, we live in a normative universe. Despite the realities of violence and injustice, there dwells within the very fabric of the universe a tilting or tendency toward love and justice, goodness and mercy. This tendency is the divine aspect of the universe, addressed as "God" by religiously minded people.
From Whitehead's pespective God's spirit dwells within each human being as a lure toward goodness, truth, and beauty. God is not all-powerful. God cannot force us to be kind and generous. But God is all-inviting and all-faithful. We experience God as a calling, within our own hearts, to live with wisdom, compassion, and creativity. Our vocation in life is to respond to this calling and be vessels of goodness in the world.
The work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations offers a vivid illustration of how innovation and vocation can be combined. As you will see if you go to their website, the results can be beautiful or, as Bill Gates puts it, magical.
Trust In the Availability
Of Fresh Possibilities
Bill and Melinda Gates may or may not believe in the God to whom we point. But they do live with faith. If not faith in God then at least faith in Goodness. The two are closely connected.
For us faith in God is not fervent belief in inflexible dogmas. It is trust in the availability of fresh possibilities. Indeed, it is trust in the availability of innovative possibilities for adding goodness and beauty to the world.
These innovative possibilities are discovered through imagination and intuition, love and hope. Sometimes they are discovered when we are alone, but often they are discovered as we interact with others in collaborative ways. They "bubble up" from conversations and interactions. They are an important way in which we experience touches of transcendence in our lives, even if we are not sure there is a transcendence to be touched.
The work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is an expression and outcome of such trust. The staff of the Foundation have their different attitudes toward institutional religion and spirituality. Nevertheless they exhibit a shared faith: "When innovators work on urgent problems and deliver solutions to people in need, the results can be magical."
Taking on the Tough Problems
We see this faith at work in the video clips on the left and in the letter from Bill and Melinda Gates below. The letter can be found on the website of their foundation, and it is written to all of us. We offer the letter here in hopes that readers will turn to the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and learn much more: www.gatesfoundation.org. Here it is:
Our friend and co-trustee Warren Buffett once gave us some great advice about philanthropy: “Don’t just go for safe projects,” he said. “Take on the really tough problems.”
We couldn’t agree more. Our foundation is teaming up with partners around the world to take on some tough problems: extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, the failures of America’s education system. We focus on only a few issues because we think that’s the best way to have great impact, and we focus on these issues in particular because we think they are the biggest barriers that prevent people from making the most of their lives.
For each issue we work on, we fund innovative ideas that could help remove these barriers: new techniques to help farmers in developing countries grow more food and earn more money; new tools to prevent and treat deadly diseases; new methods to help students and teachers in the classroom.
Some of the projects we fund will fail. We not only accept that, we expect it—because we think an essential role of philanthropy is to make bets on promising solutions that governments and businesses can’t afford to make. As we learn which bets pay off, we have to adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit.
We’re both optimists. We believe by doing these things—focusing on a few big goals and working with our partners on innovative solutions—we can help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life."
Bill Gates -- Melinda F. Gates
We are Optimists, Too
There's much in this letter that resonates with the process community, both theoretically and practically. Three points come to mind:
1. We are optimists, too. We believe that we live in a creative universe within which, moment by moment, fresh possibilities are available for responding to the situation at hand. Philanthropy is one way that human beings can respond to fresh possibilities. In doing so philanthropists are collaborating with the creativity of the universe.
2. We believe in teaming up with partners around the world, too. We believe that our world is a community of communities of communities, and that all human beings are members of a single family of life. Cultural and regional differences have their beauty; there can be healthy rivalries. But more deeply we are all in it together.
3. We believe in tackling big problems with imagination. For many of us in the process community, the work of John Cobb offers an example. You can find articles of his in this website: Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet (GO) and Foundations for a New Civilization (GO). Many of the big problems with which John Cobb is concerned are precisely those that concern the Gates Foundation: renewable agriculture, local manufacturing, economics for community, education for wisdom, green cities, vital villages, healthy community.
What Cobb adds is an interest in tackling big conceptual problems, too. He believes that there is a need for philosophical innovation as well as practical innovation. This is because many of the world's problems originate, not simply in greed or hatred or inidifference, but in questionable assumptions we make about ourselves and the universe: e.g. that the universe is machine-like rather than innovative, that individuals are isolated consumers rather than persons-in-community, that the purpose of an economy is to serve the needs of unlimited growth rather than local community, that all forms of productivity can be monetized.
Cobb and others process thinkers turn to Whitehead's philosophy because they think it can be a springboard for the innovative conceptual thinking that is needed if, in the words of Bill and Melinda Gates, every person has a chance to live a healthy and productive life.
At the heart of the process vision is the hope for the emergence in different parts of the world, not simply for happy individuals, but for healthy communities in which people enjoy rich relations with one another and with the surrounding world, satisfied in their needs for cultural identities yet adventurous in their spirits.
We process thinkers speak of them as sustainable communities, because they can be sustained given the limits of the earth to absorb pollution and they offer sustenance -- spiritual and material -- to human life. They are communities that are creative, compassionate, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying -- with no one left behind. As we look at the work of the Gates Foundation, we sense that these are the kinds of community that they, too, want to promote.
Thus we close this response to their work with a process vision of healthy philanthropy. We assume that this is the very kind of philanthropy toward which Bill and Melinda Gates are drawn. We close with a process theology of philanthropy.
In the Beginning is the Listening
1. Philanthropy begins with listening: that is, with taking on the perspectves of others in cognitive ways and, as much as possible, sharing in the subjective states as others. This listening is possible only if, and when, people find themselves in situations where they can listen and feel with others. The greatest obstacle to philanthropy among wealthy elites is isolation among wealthy elites. This is why Bill and Melinda Gates' experiences in Africa are so important.
2. Philanthropy unfolds through friendships. The philanthropist awakens to the fact that she is not an island unto herself and the very people whom she seeks to help have intelligence and creativity she lacks. She realizes that she needs them as much -- maybe even more - than they need her. Spiritually and socially, if not economically, she is incomplete without them.
3. Philanthropy is deepened by an appreciation of multiple intelligences. The philanthropist is often a very intelligent person, but he discovers that his intelligence is only one kind of intelligence of which there are many, many others. There are multiple kinds of intelligence in our world. Each person is a blending of the multiple kinds. Odetta in the video on the left has farming wisdom that most urban dweller's lack.
4. Philanthropy is enriched by teamwork, which helps everyone become more creative -- more innovative -- than they might otherwise be, and which simultaneously builds relationships of trust across cultural and economic boundaries.
5. Philanthropy is flexible, adapative, and free. A notable and noble aspect of the Gates Foundation is its freedom to fail. To repeat their words:
Some of the projects we fund will fail. We not
only accept that, we expect it—because we think an essential role of philanthropy is to make bets on promising solutions that governments and
businesses can’t afford to make. As we learn which bets pay off, we have to adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit.
This is an especially important part of successful philanthropy. It funds innovative ideas and it is innovative in its very approach to life. An innovative approach to life brings with it a freedom to take risks and to fail, trustful that even mistakes can provide opportunities for new learning and future success.
6. Philanthropy is religious. The very idea that mistakes become opportunities is illustrative of a final idea in process philanthropy. It is that the spirit at work in the world is a spirit of creative transformation. Creative transformation is our name for what Bill Gates calls the "miracle" that occurs when people's live are saved through vaccines. Or the "miracle" that occurs when women are empowered in Nepal to save their own and children's lives. Or the "miracle" that occurs when people with privilege and power decide they want to cast their lot in with the poor of the world.
Miracles are extraordinary, but they are not supernatural. They are ultranatural. Nature itself includes a divine spirit of creative transformation which brings life from death, joy from sorrow, pride from self-hatred, empowerment from ineptitude. Philanthropy at its best is responsive to this spirit. It is a religious activity and a practical activity, rolled into one. It is open to innovative ideas that help improve the world. It begins in listening and ends in hope. It is a deeply human way of participating in an innovative universe. It has practical, tangible outcomes, all miraculous.