Donors are wary, but not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Bill and Melinda Gates with children at an Anganwadi centre in Jamsaut village near Patna, Bihar, India.

Donors are increasingly wary about the lack of transparency in charities and aid organizations, especially when it comes to where their money is going, but are seemingly more than willing to give to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in the world, and is by no means short on funds. But it has been flooded by enough inspired donors to warrant a newly launched public charity, Gates Philanthropic Partners, as a vehicle for individuals who want to further the foundation’s ongoing work.

“People are looking for a way to give with confidence,” said Rob Rosen, the charity’s director, in an interview with Forbes. “The reputation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation appeals to them. Part of evolving was to recognize this desire.”

The foundation has its share of critics, who argue that it has too much influence, money and is not adequately held accountable. But unlike with other massive organizations (like the Clinton and Trump foundations), critics have not found evidence of the kinds of excessive self-dealing-type influence-peddling accusations related to the Clinton and Trump foundations during the presidential election.

Rather, the Gates Foundation is widely considered to be squeaky clean and to have changed things for the better. Bill and Melinda Gates’s work is celebrated for demonstrating how targeted spending in philanthropy can significantly affect public interest and investment. People have long been inspired by the organization, which has received around $32 million in donations since its inception in 2000.

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At the White House yesterday, the couple were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to national interests, world peace and other public or private endeavors.

In a climate of growing demand for transparency and trust, people are now even more inclined to give to renowned philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. Donors are concerned about their money being wasted, since many small NGOs and major organizations struggle to spend money effectively, according to a report from the Guardian. The Red Cross, for example – one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations – was widely chastised for using a quarter of its aid relief on overhead costs after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

The media have contributed to this wariness through its coverage of isolated instances of charity abuses, which almost never include the fact that these instances represent just a tiny minority of charities.

As CIVICUS’s Secretary-General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah explained in a piece for the Guardian, these and other factors have contributed to donors’ preference for larger, professional organizations with the best capacity to deliver on their promises and effectively demonstrate their progress. Ninety-nine percent of all official aid, he pointed out, now goes directly to aid organizations in the global north. And in England, public trust and confidence in charities has fallen to the lowest recorded level since monitoring began in 2005.

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The growing demand for transparency is controversial; “earmarked” donations make it more difficult for organizations to accomplish their missions, and most aid experts warn that public distrust in charities is detrimental to the aid sector as a whole.

Still, it seems to be becoming the new norm. Donors can now evaluate charities before they decide to give to them through websites like CharityWatch and BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Along the same lines, the humanitarian relief organization Direct Relief began allowing individual donors to specify exactly where they want their money to go – Zika, for example, or Hurricane Matthew – regardless of where it’s most needed.

“We’re hopeful it will instill more trust,” and so increase financial support over the long term, Thomas Tighe, chief executive of Direct Relief, told the New York Times. “Fingers crossed.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com