News and analysis
January 23, 2015

3 Takeaways From the Gates Annual Letter

Gates Foundation/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Gateses are betting big that gains in agriculture, health, personal finance, and other areas will have at least one common variable—technological innovation.

In their latest annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates say they want to mobilize millions of people around the world to give money and take other steps to advance ambitious near-term improvements in the quality of life of the world’s most marginalized.

"The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than any other time in history," they say. "We’re putting our credibility, time, and money behind this bet—and asking others to join in."

The letter, titled "Our Big Bet for the Future," signals continuing commitment to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s longtime grant-making priorities—global development, global health, and education. It does not detail current or future funding levels.

While many philanthropies produce annual reports and other types of communications, the Gateses’ letter attracts headlines worldwide due to the prominence of its authors and the foundation’s billions in annual grant making.

This year’s letter, which was published online and included several embedded explanatory videos, marked the seventh from the philanthropists. Here are the biggest takeaways:

Bill and Melinda Continue to Swing Big

The Gateses have laid out a sweeping 15-year plan. Helping to eradicate diseases like polio, halving the child death rate, and reducing the number of women who die in childbirth by two thirds are just the start of a long list of ambitious goals.

It’s a big bet that some will view as "irrational," the Gateses acknowledge. Still, the benchmarks are achievable, they say.

"The rich world will keep getting exciting new advances, too, but the improvements in the lives of the poor will be far more fundamental—the basics of a healthy, productive life," they say.

If any philanthropists can provide the money needed to solve immovable social problems, it’s the Gates. Their foundation has assets of $41-billion, according to its 2013 annual report, the most recent available. The foundation distributed $3.6-billion to nonprofits, with $1.7-billion going to global development and $1-billion going to global health. Notably, however, the Gateses say nothing about whether they will put more of their fortune into the philanthropy anytime soon.

Technology Will Play a Central Role

The Gateses are betting big that gains in agriculture, health, personal finance, and other areas will have at least one common variable—technological innovation. In the next 15 years, for example, digital banking by mobile phone will give an additional 2 billion people access to bank accounts, they say.

Getting injectable antibiotics into the hands of health-care workers can save 300,000 newborns annually. And improvements to sanitation, including specially designed, germ-tempering toilets, will further reduce the spread of disease.

The Gateses have used their money to stoke the creation of such tools in the past, including a competition with prizes up to $100,000 for the development of toilets that manage human waste.

The Gateses Want Everyone, Not Just Billionaires to Give More

At the urging of the Gates­es, along with Warren Buffett, more than 120 billionaires have signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s uber-rich to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes.

Now the Gateses are setting out to recruit tens of millions through a website and other efforts dubbed Global Citizen. The concept is to tap into the generous impulses so many people feel when they hear about serious problems, even those that don’t typically get headlines. Participants are asked to follow a global issue and to act on it in some way themselves, while also urging action by governments, companies, and nonprofits.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.