The Gates Foundation released a statement in response to the LA Times articles I discussed last week:
"Bill and Melinda oversee the investment of the foundation’s endowment. In giving guidance to the investment managers, they have chosen not to get involved in ranking companies based upon factors such as their lending policies or environmental record. There are dozens of factors that could be considered, almost all of which are outside the foundation’s areas of expertise. The issues involved are quite complex. Should a company get a failing score if 1 percent of its output is used in cigarette packaging, or if 1 percent of its stores’ sales are in tobacco? How far back in time do you evaluate behavior? If a company disagrees with your assessment, what appeals process is available? Which social and political issues should be on the list?
Many of the companies mentioned in the Los Angeles Times articles, such as Ford, Kraft, Fannie Mae, Nestle, and General Electric, do a lot of work that some people like, as well as work that some people do not like. Some activities might even be viewed positively by some people and negatively by others.
There are many important issues that the foundation does not focus on, such as lending laws and environmental regulation. The organizations that do work on those issues—together with governments and all of their legislative, executive, and judicial resources—play a critical role. We do not want to duplicate that role.
Bill and Melinda have prioritized our program work over ranking companies and issues because it allows us to have the greatest impact for the most people. They also believe there would be much room for error and confusion in such judgments, and that divesting from these companies would not have an effect commensurate with the resources we would divert to this activity. The foundation’s not owning a tiny percentage of a company or selling it to another investor would often go unnoticed, and Bill and Melinda would not be comfortable delegating this kind of judgment."
You can read the entire release here.
Some other bloggers have mocked the Gates’ point of view. But I think that this is a rational decision for a foundation to make. That does not mean that I think that foundations should not engage in socially responsible investing, just that not doing so is rational and each foundation should examine all aspects of their operation and proactively make decisions about how best to achieve their mission.
I’m glad to see the increased media coverage of philanthropy. I think that transparency and accountability are wonderful tools for improving philanthropy.