The incredible shrinking Gates Foundation annual report

Warren Buffett, Melinda and Bill Gates
Warren Buffett, Melinda and Bill Gates
Warren Buffett, Melinda and Bill Gates
Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has just released its 2012 annual report and it’s the shortest one yet, at seven pages.

Humanosphere has noted before this trend of the Gates Foundation’s shrinking annual report, coming on the heels of last week’s announcement that the philanthropy scored ‘very poor‘ when ranked by the 2013 Aid Transparency Index.

Chris Williams, press secretary for the Gates Foundation, said reducing the length of the annual report is a trend taken by most other foundations since much of the information people may seek – more detailed financial data, specifics on projects and so on – is more readily accessible on the website. Williams said the Gates Foundation recognizes the need for improved transparency, is working on it and that the low ranking in the 2013 ATI report is partly due to the apples-and-oranges difficulty of comparing disclosure by a private philanthropy with mostly government agencies.

“A private foundation has much different legal disclosure requirements than, say, USAID,” Williams said.

For last year’s report (11 pages), we noted five key points – which included the chronic complaint that the foundation remains a bit opaque to outsiders, even to grant recipients. Jeff Raikes, outgoing CEO at the Gates Foundation, specifically addressed this issue in the annual report last year, noting the need for improvement and plans to re-survey grant recipients for their perspective.

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Beyond the communication issues between the world’s biggest philanthropy and its grant recipients, others have raised concerns about the combination of lack of accountability within this arena and the increasing¬† level of political, social and economic influence of mega-philanthropies. Here’s a recent Washington Post op-ed that takes that tack and another at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Chronicle is paywalled but here’s a similar post from the same author, Joanne Barkan, at Dissent magazine.

Putting the disclosure and accountability concerns aside, perhaps the most interesting feature of the 2012 Gates Foundation annual report other than its shrinking size is this pie chart:

GatesPieChartWhat is strikingly different here from past spending pie charts in the foundation’s annual report is that global health is no longer the biggest slice. Global development is now, by far, the biggest program at the world’s biggest philanthropy.

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This might look like a big shift in emphasis, but it is actually just a reflection of the Gates Foundation’s recent reorganization. The reorganization reduced the scope of the global health program under former Novartis executive Trevor Mundel to focus on ‘product development’ – finding new and better drugs, vaccines or medical technologies. The other (often much bigger) Gates-funded health initiatives focused on ‘delivery’ – getting kids vaccinated, preventing deaths in childbirth and so on – were moved over to the development program run by Chris Elias.

It’s not yet clear if the dust has settled after turning around the battleship (that’s a weird metaphor to mix), but it has been regarded as a positive sign to many outsiders that the world’s leading philanthropists see global health as a subset of the much bigger fight against poverty and inequity.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.