Billionaires at The Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

This Wednesday, private planes and caravans will shepherd dozens of the world’s most financially successful people to a luxury resort north of Los Angeles for a conference that you will never hear anything about. Until Thursday night, on the grounds of an Ojai, California hideout, Bill and Melinda French Gates will hold court as they have for the last ten years atop the Giving Pledge, the network of 200-plus luminaries whom the Gateses have recruited to join them in philanthropy and who gather, once a year, at elite retreats like this one.

The annual gathering of The Giving Pledge is a fascinating window into the arts and science of big-dollar donations. The Pledge was launched back in 2010 by Bill, Melinda and Warren Buffett with an ask for people with more than $1 billion in net worth to publicly commit to donate more than half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime or in their wills, and attendees look forward to the yearly celebrations. But much has changed since the Gates and Buffett fan club last gathered in-person in the late spring of 2019. Obviously there was the pandemic, which placed Bill Gates at the height of his powers and influence as a public intellectual, on television seemingly every day in the early weeks of Covid, dispensing pearls of public-health wisdom. The Foundation spent considerable time over the last two years pondering the role that it should play during the crisis, and just how hard to push other donors to respond to a once-in-a-century call-to-arms moment for philanthropy. “We are excited to offer this private, confidential event once again for pledge signatories to learn from each other and reconnect after several years of virtual-only engagement,” read this year’s invitation to signers that someone passed to me.

There have, of course, also been more personal developments. Bill and Melinda French Gates—the mom and dad of this group, whose cult of personality inspired so many of the Giving Pledge commitments, as many recount gushingly in their pledge letters—are now divorced, allowing the annual gathering to become a partial glimpse into their post-nuptial relations. The divorce has had the potential to throw the Foundation into crisis, although I think the consequences of the rupture have been overstated. Still, one person close with Gates world and with some attendees of this week’s event told me they anticipated “a lot less enthusiasm about hanging out with Bill” given all of the unpleasantness that was aired during the divorce, including details about Gates’ past association with Jeffrey Epstein. “The Bill and Melinda thing is a real dynamic… Is it weird? Is it not?” said another person close to the event. “This is just the start of that weird unraveling, or one step in the journey that’s clearly coming.” For now, however, their joint attendance sends the clear message that there is nothing to see here—an important statement given how much of the Pledge’s success depends on public support for the Gateses. 

The Gateses, after all, are savvy enough to be able to manage through any personal issues. Spending a few days together in pursuit of a philanthropic legacy that will outlive their marriage is worth it. The other big storyline ahead of the event has been the ascendance of MacKenzie Scott, the only other philanthropist who rivals the Gateses in prestige, intrigue, and, frankly, aura.

Plans may have changed, but Scott recently was expected to attend the event, I am told by a person informed of her plan, but not to speak before the group. That may be disappointing given the number of people who surely would love to hear from her, but befits her low profile. One person in touch with several Pledgers told me that they had received numerous inquiries from other signers in recent weeks about whether she is attending—after all, they’re not given a guest list in advance. That buzz comes because Scott, with her unprecedented velocity of charitable giving, has challenged the status quo in philanthropy, which the Giving Pledge community very much epitomizes. And while MacKenzie is personally close with Melinda—and a key MacKenzie philanthropy aide comes from Melinda’s team—some of the other Giving Pledge signatories are probably both in awe of her work but also threatened by it, since her rapid-fire grant-making strategy argues, in effect, that the highly-paid staff, years of laborious study, and general rigamarole of the philanthropy industry is largely unnecessary. MacKenzie did quietly attend the confab in 2019, just after finalizing her divorce from non-signer Jeff Bezos, but that was before she donated $5.8 billion in a single year, becoming a celebrity in her own right. This time around, there will be many more eyes on her, for sure.

Number Ones

On the annual billionaire ideas circuit—Davos, Bilderberg, Sun Valley, or any of the other weekend ideas conferences that the U.H.N.W. set privately host for their peers—the Gates retreat is unusually private. Indeed, the annual gathering is almost the opposite of Sun Valley, the Allen & Co. mogulfest where tech and media dealmakers smile and wave at the cameras, Paparazzi-style. Here there are basically no media stories about what happens inside the Giving Pledge rooms, or even about the conference itself, with few exceptions. The Gates team invited The Economist, in 2012, for interviews with Buffett and new signatory (and newfound Gates hater) Elon Musk, and they brought in Charlie Rose for a glowing 60 Minutes segment in 2013, but the event is otherwise cloak-and-dagger by design. Attendees are asked to not talk about their attendance to the press, and they mostly don’t, treating the confidentiality of the agenda as something of a state secret.

Part of why the conference is kept so tightly under wraps—and the same reason why some attendees find it so valuable—is that unlike other conferences, it is only open to the principals, the billionaire philanthropists themselves. No kids, and certainly no staff are allowed on the premises, which is a significant concession for a group of people used to traveling with a hearty entourage (including at other, lesser Giving Pledge events where staff are welcome). Even the number of Gates employees that get to attend their own event—it is organized by Gates Philanthropy Partners, an arm of the foundation—is relatively small. That dynamic makes the event much more cloistered, but in the eyes of some insiders, also makes it more of a real learning opportunity for peers to connect without attracting hangers-on. “You would get fewer of the principles to come if it were 300 people large,” said one person close to the Pledge. “On the flip side, it’s arguably less effective because if the principles don’t go back and act on what they’ve been inspired to do, this was to what end?”

The conference itself is basically what you would expect, according to people familiar with its inner workings. “Pretty standard for a meeting,” in the words of one regular attendee. Somewhere between half to two-thirds of the Pledge signers attend each year; several signers told me they couldn’t make it this year due to various conflicts, plus attendance this year is more unpredictable given the pandemic surge. Some Silicon Valley names expected to head to Ojai this year include John Doerr, a close Gates friend; Netflix founder Reed Hastings; investor Ron Conway; and Airbnb co-founder Nate Blecharczyk, along with his wife, Elizabeth, a doctor who cares greatly about public health. I am told that Hastings, Conway and Blecharczyk were among those given coveted podium spots to present. (The theme of this year’s gathering is “Scale.”) A new signer, quietly announced Tuesday on the Giving Pledge’s website, is Zynga founder Mark Pincus.

Most of the speaking is done by attendees like these who are asked to give a presentation either about general philanthropy—on, say, a big topic like “failure”—or on specific areas of interest, like impact investing, K-12 education, climate change, etc. (It falls to the uninvited staff to do the follow-up work, months later, that turns those sessions into dollars.) A select number of outside speakers are invited to provide overviews of their work, sometimes thanks to being sponsored by a Pledger; this week’s event features C.V. Madhukar, for instance, who most recently worked for signer Pierre Omidyar and is raising money to spend on digital public infrastructure. But mostly, the conference consists of whole-group sessions, breakout “learning sessions” that Pledgers choose between, an opening dinner and other meals, optional activities (an early iteration of the event memorably included ziplining, a curious choice given the ages of all those involved), and socializing, perhaps with the chance to rub shoulders with Bill and Melinda. After a full, content-heavy day of programming, there is an important closing dinner—this year on Thursday—for which most people stick around before jetting home that night or the following morning.

A No Pitch Zone … In Theory

One other unique dynamic of the annual gathering is that it is proudly a “no-pitch zone”—it is frowned upon to fundraise for specific projects, an instruction that is issued to “a ridiculous extreme” in the words of one befuddled source. (“How could you talk about giving and not talk about anything specific?”) So people have to work to sell one another on their work more subtly, which is indeed very much the strategy of those who attend, I am told. “Normally philanthropists are isolated,” one of this year’s attendees told me. “Because of their wealth, they’re in a world of their own. This is an opportunity for people to actually do things together.” Of course, it’s also an opportunity to size up the competition. “There’s a surprising amount of insecurity about what he is doing, what she is doing, and this navel-gazing of whether someone else has figured out something else better than I have,” said one person who has been involved with Giving Pledge-related programming over the years.

The Giving Pledge, of course, has always contained a sort of Catch-22 for its organizers. For a decade, the Gates team have been proudly, almost aggressively agnostic about the issues that their philanthropists choose to fund—as long as they are dedicating more than half of their money to charity, any charity, the Giving Pledge box is checked. That hands-off approach is friendly to donors, who wouldn’t take too well to a bunch of less-accomplished Seattle staffers strong-arming them into spending their millions on X or on Y. That was certainly a concern for Buffett, who nixed an early effort to provide more of a steer because, as he told a philanthropy friend, “I don’t like being preached to. I don’t like to preach to others.” But there is only weak evidence that the Giving Pledge has been successful at convincing donors to make massive contributions that they would not have made otherwise; the Pledge is merely a non-binding promise, without any teeth. On the contrary, most defenses of the initiative are more wishy-washy, centering on the claim that the Pledge has shifted the “norms” or “narratives” around charitable giving.

At the same time, if Gates world pushes too hard, or is too prescriptive, then fewer billionaires are likely to sign the Pledge or show up at their events. (Only one in six eligible American billionaires have signed it, and recruitment has been slowing; the Gates team has been trying to enlist more international signatories, such as Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani.) The central tension from the outset has been “how to make the Pledge sticky,” as one person close to the Giving Pledge put it. “If you could get people to come and commit large amounts of money, that’s the next stage. Because you can only go so far with a Pledge and a learning community.” Indeed, the Giving Pledge has recently been exploring ways to carve out more of a middle-ground, and I know that the Gates team has been thinking about ways to do more than be merely hands-off conveners and to offer more advisory services or pooled funding opportunities, though these are “baby steps,” in the words of one source. Last month, for instance, according to someone who saw the invitation, Bill and some doctors hosted an event for Pledge signers about ways that philanthropy could be used to prevent the next pandemic, the subject of his latest book. For now, the Gates team is likely to offer updates on that this week as their strategy evolves, trying, as always, to balance what is best for Bill and Melinda personally with what is best for the hundreds of other tycoons who idolize them.