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Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates

Amount donated: in excess of $30bn

Philanthropic causes: health, education, agriculture

Region of philanthropic focus: Over 100 countries around the world

Ranking: Bill: World’s richest billionaire (Forbes, 2016); Melinda: 3rd most powerful woman in the world (Forbes, 2015)

Net worth: $76.7bn (Forbes, 2016)

Source of wealth: Software

As well as being the richest couple in the world, Bill and Melinda Gates are also the most generous, having pledged to donate most of their money to charity. As the co-founder of Microsoft, Bill played a leading role in the rise of home computers, and as a philanthropist he has built up a formidable reputation as a serious thinker about the world’s problems.

Born in Seattle in 1955, Gates showed an interest in computers while still at school, and later dropped out of Harvard to found a software company with a school friend; they called it Micro-Soft (the hyphen was later dropped) and established several variants of the BASIC software programme that became the dominant programming language of home computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its most successful product, Microsoft Office, was launched in 1989 – by which time Microsoft was the biggest computer software company in the world. First included in the Forbes rich list in 1987, he was the world’s wealthiest person from 1995 to 2007, and has been since 2014.

He married Dallas-born Melinda French in 1994; she had joined Microsoft after graduating from university, and they met at a press event in 1987. They have three children and live in Washington state. In 2014, Bill stated that: “I want to focus on things where I think my experience working with innovation gives me an opportunity to do something unique.” In that year he stepped down as chairman of Microsoft, having previously reduced his involvement with the software company over a period of several years in order to concentrate more on his philanthropic duties.

Inspired by early twentieth-century philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) and the Rockefeller family, Bill established his own charitable foundation, which formed the basis of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Launched in 2000, this is dedicated to promoting greater equality through global health and learning; pledges included $83m to fight tuberculosis, $168m for research into malaria and $1bn to the United Negro College Fund, the USA’s largest minority higher education assistance organisation. As of 2013, the couple had given over $28bn to charity (which is why Bill is no longer worth the $100bn he was in 1999), and pledged to donate 95% of their wealth over the course of their lifetimes (although, as they’ve stated that they intend to leave their three children $10m each, they are actually proposing that over 99% of their fortune be used for philanthropic purposes).

As well as their own foundation, which was sizeable enough to attract donations from the investor Warren Buffett, the Gateses have worked at encouraging others to take up philanthropy. Along with Buffett, they established the Giving Pledge in 2010 to encourage wealthy people to give most of their wealth to good causes. As of May 2016, some 143 individuals or couples have signed up to this. “We’re trying to get the people who are doing giving together to talk about where they’ve made mistakes, what they’re doing well, see where there can be more collaboration,” explained Bill.

Bill and Melinda have openly discussed their motives for supporting certain causes. “One of the things that has most helped us is to set some goals and say: ‘How can we most effectively use this money’,” Melinda told the BBC. “When you know that you can deliver a live-saving vaccine … to a mother in the developing world and she knows her children will survive, it changes the course of her life. She can then educate that child, they can work together on a business or in the field, and they can lift themselves out of poverty.”

In 2013 the BMGF – the world’s largest private foundation – was estimated to have assets valued at £34.6bn and an annual healthcare budget bigger than that of the World Health Organisation. As well as targeting worldwide healthcare problems, it hopes to raise millions of poor families in Asia and Africa out of poverty; working to improve education and agriculture tie in with this goal.

“With money comes great responsibility, and our responsibility is to make sure this goes back to society,” Melinda has said. “It came from society, and it should go back there.”


Photograph by Kjetil Ree, sourced from Wikimedia Commons


Jon Cronon, ‘Bill Gates: billionaire philanthropist’, BBC (25th January 2005)

‘Bill and Melinda Gates to give 95% of wealth to charity, BBC (18th October 2010)

Neil Tweedie, ‘Bill Gates interview: I have no use for money. This is God’s work’, Telegraph (13th January 2013)

Robin Toal, ‘The Top Ten US Charitable Foundations’, (16th September 2013)

Jeff Goodall, ‘Bill Gates: The Rolling Stone Interview’, Rolling Stone (13th March 2014)

Bill Gates profile, Forbes

Bill Gates profile, BBC

Bill Gates profile, Wikipedia

Melinda Gates profile, Forbes

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation profile, Wikipedia

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website

Giving Pledge website