SEATTLE — The assets of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation lost 20 percent of their value in 2008. But Bill Gates says the foundation will increase its giving in 2009 instead of cutting back because of the economic downturn.
In his first annual letter, issued Monday, Gates said the wealthy have a responsibility to help those who aren’t.
“This is especially true when the constraints on others are so great. Otherwise, we will come out of the economic downturn in a world that is even more unequal, with greater inequities in health and education, and few opportunities for people to improve their lives,” Gates wrote.
Gates and his wife, Melinda, lead the nation’s largest charitable foundation, which focuses most of its donations on global health, agriculture development and education. Since 1994, the foundation has committed to $19.9 billion in grants. As of Oct. 1, 2008, its endowment totaled $35.1 billion.
In the letter, Gates announced the foundation would increase its giving from a bit over 5 percent of its assets, as is required by the federal government, to 7 percent in 2009. That increase may not continue into 2010, however, he said during a teleconference after posting the letter on the foundation’s Web site.
The foundation gave away $3.3 billion in 2008 and plans to distribute $3.8 billion in 2009.
Gates said other foundations are also increasing their gifts in 2009 to meet the needs of poor people during the economic downturn.
So far, governments have kept their global development dollars flowing. Gates said he would encourage government and business leaders to continue helping people in developing countries when he attends the World Economic Forum’s annual five-day meeting in Davos, Switzerland, later this week.
He said he decided to write his 20-page update on the foundation’s work because friend and foundation supporter Warren Buffett encouraged him to do so.
“It was an interesting challenge to keep it to a reasonable length,” he said in the teleconference. “Some would say we didn’t succeed.”
Gates doubts the effects of the economic downturn will be over within the next two years, but thinks conditions eventually will improve.
“If you take a longer time frame, such as five to 10 years, I am very optimistic that these problems will be behind us,” Gates wrote.
The letter does not announce any new programs or initiatives. Gates said the newest work at the foundation was announced at the end of 2008, when it expanded into higher education.
He said the letter was among the foundation’s efforts to improve communication about the work it does, but he cautioned that transparency was not the most important goal of the foundation.
“At the end of the day the goal is to save lives,” Gates said.