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Bill Gates might be shifting full-time from software to philanthropy over the next two years but he has already laid the financial and philosophical foundations for his future work over the past decade.

If in the mid-1990s he was still arguing that his charitable efforts could wait until he retired, by the turn of the millennium he had begun placing large sums into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the form of his own Microsoft shares and later the company’s first dividends.

Prudent financial management - which involved transfering the shares and immediately selling them to create a diversified portfolio, and putting much of the money into bonds and cash - has helped the endowment grow to about $29bn today.

According to the latest rankings by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the US newspaper covering the non-profit sector, that made the Gates’ Foundation by far the wealthiest in the country, with the Ford Foundation in second position with a much smaller $11bn.

Attempts to rank Gates’ status as a philanthropist are confused by the fact that some individual donors give more away in any one year directly to different causes, whereas Gates’ payments to his endowment are more lumpy year by year.

That made Cordelia Scaife May, who inherited her money from the Mellon banking fortune, a more generous benefactor last year, giving away $404m for environment and immigration control issues. On those terms, Gates came second, with $320m paid to his Foundation, which in turn continued its upward trend in disbursements, at $1.4bn during 2005.

Alongside money, this month Mr Gates confirmed his top priorities for giving, with a reorganisation at the Foundation under three presidents: one for US causes, one for global development, and one for global health. The latter, focused on fighting “neglected diseases”, is destined to receive about half of total donations in the future.

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