Monday, January 15, 2007

A thoughtful response from Gates

Thanks to reader Greg for a tip that the Gates Foundation has replaced the online announcement that replies to the L.A. Times articles. The new essay, still signed by Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Scott, is quite different from the one that was online for only half a day last week though it does still make the good point that Gates has been completely transparent about its investing.

The new essay makes a point of stating that "Bill and Melinda oversee the investment of the foundation's endowment", so it does look like they were annoyed that the previous posting and Scott's newspaper interview made it sound otherwise. It says that they give "guidance" to professional investment managers, which every non-profit watchdog would agree is the appropriate approach for a foundation board.

Perhaps the most-important substantive message of the new essay is that the Gates Foundation is not in the camp that says a foundation should seek only to maximize returns with its endowment. Rather, their reason for mostly declining to rank companies on moral grounds is the real-life complexity and contradictions inherent in that concept. "There are dozens of factors that could be considered...Many of the companies mentioned in the Los Angeles Times articles do a lot of work that some people like, as well as work some people do not like. Some activities might even be viewed positively by some people and negatively by others." They also note that some of the issues which the newspaper brought up as reasons not to invest in a company, such as lending laws or environmental regulation, are outside the foundation's charitable mission.

On the shareholder activism question they basically vote for reserving proxy voting for issues directly related to a company's carrying out its core mission, i.e. good management of the company itself. And they do note the one specific subject on which Bill and Melinda have thus far decided that the issues are clear-cut enough to decide not to invest at all: tobacco.

I don't personally agree with all of the above decisions but also don't find any of them to be out of the bounds of what reasonable people of good will might conclude. It does sound like the newspaper articles have provoked renewed focus on the subject over there, and that the Gates folks understand that its unique status in philanthropy inherently places some special obligations on them.

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