When you're as high profile as Melinda French Gates, the world tracks your movements. For years, we followed the investments, speeches, and engagements of the co-founder of the Gates Foundation as she decided where her philanthropic donations would fall. Even before the divorce, Bill and Melinda were a giving power couple, elevating the importance and impact of regular philanthropy -- especially for those of means.
Recently, however, she has changed course -- somewhat. While some assumed most of her billions would ultimately land in the Gates Foundation, The Wall Street Journal reported that she would likely be putting her wealth elsewhere.
In her Giving Pledge letter last year, she hinted at her shift with one stunning line, saying it's "important to place trust in the people and organizations we partner with and let them define success on their own terms."
Here's the broader picture, eloquently stated by French Gates:
...I've also learned how important it is to ensure that the people closest to those problems have a role in designing solutions. It's much easier to imagine that you have all the answers when you're sitting in a conference room in Seattle than when you're face-to-face with a business owner in Nairobi or an indigenous activist in New Mexico who is telling you in her own words about her hopes for the future and the challenges she sees to realizing them. That's why I think philanthropy is most effective when it prioritizes flexibility over ideology -- and why in my work at the foundation and Pivotal Ventures I'll continue to seek out new partners, ideas, and perspectives.
In short, French Gates is handing the reins for execution over to the organizations and entities that know how to do it best.
It's easy for those in business leadership to fall into a decision-making role, even in projects well beyond office scope, like philanthropy. Many C-levels crave a legacy and see giving as a way to cement it.
But as French Gates clearly articulates, philanthropy is not business, nor should it be self-serving: It requires a letting go that most CEOs aren't terribly good at.
As she not-so-subtly urges in her letter, however, they should learn to be.
When trust is given and control handed over, amazing things happen -- especially when those you invest in are wholly invested in their community's success.
French Gates understands what a lot of in-title-mostly philanthropists don't get. Giving is not about the giver; it's about the impact. And if your name, decisions, or company are never attached to it? Perhaps it's for the best -- betterment of the world community is what matters most.