Bill Gates may be stepping down from his day job at Microsoft within the next two years, but his passion for philanthropy at evening and weekends will easily expand to help fill the void for a far longer period ahead.
A decade ago, his donations were modest and he believed he would begin charitable distribution of his growing fortune after his retirement. But a mixture of criticism and cajoling, including from his ailing mother and wife, Melinda, accelerated the process.
The real shift came in 2000, when he created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the transfer of a significant proportion of his personal Microsoft shares. That coincided with the announcement that he would be giving up his role as chief executive of the company to be its chief software architect.
Having pledged nearly all his wealth would eventually go to charity, the world’s richest man – worth more than $50bn – has already become its biggest philanthropist, with his foundation last year reporting assets of $35bn and $1.4bn in grants.
Mr Gates’s logical initial focus was on computing, with initiatives to provide libraries across the US with internet access. Alongside local giving in the Pacific North West, he also expanded into education reform, driven notably by a desire to tackle the inequalities that left minority students disadvantaged.
The same frustration with unequal opportunities – that medicines available in the rich west were unaffordable to the poor elsewhere – also sparked an interest in global health, and notably treatments for the “neglected diseases”, primarily affecting the developing world, such as tuberculosis and malaria.
His health funding – now accounting for about half his charitable grants – combines Mr Gates’s desire to address inequality with his passion for biotechnology. His aides say he reads virology textbooks for pleasure, and can hold his own in highly arcane discussions on disease.
At the start of this month, his foundation announced a reorganisation, with greater decision-making power delegated to three presidents in charge of US projects, global health and global development.
Seen now in the context of Mr Gates’s plans to give up his day-to-day role at Microsoft, it heralds the next stage of his philanthropic activities, which by the start of the next decade will be housed in new eye-catching headquarters in downtown Seattle.By the time he moves into his office there, he may be able to see whether some of his more ambitious long-term projects are proving successful.