SEATTLE -- When John D. Rockefeller turned his attention to philanthropic causes earlier this century, he relied in many ways on his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., for help in deciding how to disburse his colossal oil fortune. Father and son brooded, at times to the verge of mental exhaustion, over how hard it was to give away money in an intelligent and useful fashion.
It may be a while before William H. Gates III, the 43-year-old founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp. and the wealthiest person on the planet, asks his children for help with his philanthropic endeavors. Jennifer is 3, and Rory John is shy of 4 months. Because Gates remains at the helm of his company, he is unable to concentrate full time on the task.
Instead, Gates has looked in the other direction on the family tree and given much of the responsibility to a genial 6-foot-6 retired lawyer, William H. Gates Jr., a man candid enough to say, perhaps a touch sheepishly, that his billionaire son harbors "a continuous frustration about the problems that people like his father have with their computer" and droll enough to enjoy the humor in going by the name Bill Gates.
"I get a big kick out of that," Gates, 73, said, adding that it was especially true when he called people on the phone. "First, there's just a pause. They don't know what to say. Or it's, 'Are you kidding?' Or, 'Come on, now, are you really?' And to that I always say, 'Sure, I am Bill Gates.' "
As a co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the elder Gates sits atop a $17 billion organization, one that pledges to make large donations in the fields of education and global health.
The Gates philanthropic foundation recently became the largest in the country, and with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation of Los Altos, Calif., in the No. 2 position, it is a striking symbol of the fast-growing role of high technology and West Coast money in American philanthropy.
With more donations expected, the Gates Foundation is nearly certain to surpass the Wellcome Trust in Britain soon as the largest philanthropic organization in the world.
The foundation's broad priorities, as set by the Microsoft chairman and his wife, include global health programs, especially those focused on developing and distributing vaccines for malaria, AIDS and other diseases; education, encompassing programs to provide computers, Internet access and technical training for libraries in lower-income areas across North America; and a variety of community, educational and cultural programs in the Pacific Northwest.
The two John D. Rockefellers found the task of philanthropy daunting, especially as they labored over the details of building brick-and-mortar institutions, such as the University of Chicago, which were created with Rockefeller money. The two Bill Gateses seem less overwhelmed.
For one thing, the younger Gates has said that though philanthropy may one day become his obsession, he is more immersed in his young family and his company, which is embroiled in a large antitrust battle with the U.S. Justice Department. He has left many of the details of his philanthropy to his father and others.
For another thing, the grant-making process at the Gates Foundation is simpler than that of the Rockefellers, at least in the area of health, which the elder Gates has concentrated on: The money has been donated to groups or efforts, such as the Malaria Vaccine Initiative and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, rather than used to create institutions. The elder Gates said that will probably remain the case.
The elder Gates said he found that the daunting nature of the process is far outweighed by the satisfaction of being able to do some good.
Gates' duties, for which he receives an annual salary of $90,000, grew out of a conversation a few years ago with his son and daughter-in-law during a night at the movies.
Over its first few years, and under the elder Gates' direction, the foundation has given gifts that include $100 million to reduce delays in the delivery of new vaccines to children around the world; $50 million to the Maternal Mortality Reduction program at Columbia University; $50 million for research on the malaria vaccine, and $25 million to the AIDS vaccine initiative.