News and analysis
July 07, 2015

Bill and Melinda Gates: Big in Philanthropy, Big on Facebook

Bill and Melinda Gates have not only one of the biggest wallets in philanthropy, they also have the biggest social-media audience.

The Seattle-based Gateses topped a list of 50 global philanthropists in terms of followers on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, compiled as part of a study published Tuesday.

They were trailed by airline mogul Richard Branson, hedge-fund manager George Soros, and United Arab Emirates Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Financier Herbert Sandler and his wife Marion rounded out the top five.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’s Facebook page has 15 million likes, and his Twitter account has 23.3 million followers. Melinda Gates has an audience of 649,00 and 756,000 on Facebook and Twitter, respectively. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Facebook page has 1 million likes, while its Twitter handle has 1.5 million followers.

No Longer a ‘Private Enterprise’

The statistics speak to a new era in philanthropy in which donors communicate directly with the world about their charity work.

"Historically and traditionally, philanthropy has been a private enterprise," said Mark Flanagan, senior partner for content and digital strategy at Portland Communications, which conducted the study. "Now philanthropists are increasingly using social media to promote their work, to mobilize resources, and to shape debates."

The social-media communications from the Gateses, who ranked No. 1 on The Chronicle’s 2014 list of most generous donors in the United States, center on the work of their $43.5-billion foundation in global development, health, and education. This year, the couple has been Tweeting regularly about the United Nation’s forthcoming sustainable-­development goals. Last week, Bill Gates took to Twitter to congratulate a Saudi prince who pledged his entire $32-billion to charity, inspired in part by the Gateses.

Christopher Williams, director of media and external relations for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in an email to The Chronicle that social media is a "powerful tool to reach audiences that care about the issues that the foundation works on and to listen to what they have to say about those issues and our work on them."

He did not immediately respond to a question about whether the Gateses write their own Tweets and other social-media posts or whether they are written by staff members.

The newly released study found that social-media sites most used by philanthropists are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.