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Is Bill Gates really that generous if he keeps a few billion to himself?

Mother Teresa said ‘Give until it hurts’. I’m not sure if Gates is feeling any pain

By on Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Bill Gates meets the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at Windsor Castle (Photo: PA)

Bill Gates meets the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at Windsor Castle (Photo: PA)

Today I received a rather late Christmas newsletter from friends in the US who are part of a lay Catholic community. It comprises married couples, single people and a consecrated virgin among others. In the group photograph I noticed one particular person, a single woman, now in her late 60s. I recalled being told that this woman was orphaned when young and was left a million dollars. In the early 1960s this was a large sum. Seeking to follow the Gospel injunction she literally gave the whole lot away to good causes – and then later joined the lay community which, embracing a life of material simplicity, shares all goods and money in common.

I have sometimes thought of her gesture. It came back to me again last week at Mass at the feast of St Anthony, the abbot and Desert Father. The story goes that St Anthony, like this woman, was orphaned and inherited great wealth as a young man. He happened to hear a sermon on the Gospel text, “Go, sell all you have and follow me” and on the spot decided to do just that (after making sure his younger sister was safely deposited in a convent).

I think of these two examples because I wonder what I would do if I acquired a very large sum of money out of the blue. I like to think I would give it all away – but would I? I have children and grandchildren, all with their pressing needs, as well as a large winter gas bill of my own and so on. Still, the advertising slogan, “Live simply so that others may simply live” appeals to me. Given what we all know of global want and poverty, courtesy of the news media, it seems to me that to live otherwise than “simply” is immoral as well as unchristian. But one person’s simplicity can be another person’s extravagance.

I spoke about this to a friend who has started a successful recruitment business from scratch. He slept in his car while he drove round the country when he was getting it off the ground. After only a few years his business now has a healthy turnover of well over a million pounds and it is expanding all the time. Last year this friend became a Catholic and, being of a dramatic disposition, he announced to me that he was going to sell his shiny new BMW, a symbol of wealth, and buy an old banger instead. Not being business-minded, this gesture appealed to me. However, his business partner, who has his feet more firmly on the ground, persuaded him it would be a very bad idea: potential clients needed to think the firm was prosperous; driving an old jalopy when touting for custom wouldn’t help their image or their bank balance – and if the business flopped it wouldn’t help the unskilled young people they recruit.

I also read an article about Bill Gates describing how he has dispensed with his immense wealth. His personal fortune beggars the imagination: some 65 billion dollars at the last count. When I was a child the Irish sweepstake had a top prize of £50,000. For me this represented the riches of Croesus. Now Russian oligarchs and internet entrepreneurs talk carelessly of “billions”. Wealth of this kind has risen to an abstract, stratospheric level, completely beyond the normal scale or imagination.

As is well-known, Bill Gates is conspicuously open-handed with his money, funding schemes through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that hope to eradicate polio and malaria worldwide. The article, by Neil Tweedie, quoted Gates as saying: “I’m certainly well taken care of in terms of food and clothes. Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.” This sounds commendable – though even billionaires can’t consume more food or wear more clothes than other people. So far the Gates have given away 28 billion dollars to good causes. Tweedie writes that they “are showing generosity on a staggering scale… and they have convinced others that mega-philanthropy is the way of the future”. One might point out that Gates has kept a bit of money for himself and his family; his home is worth about £94 million, including “a swimming pool equipped with an underwater music system” and his children, although “they may not become multibillionaires”, should inherit “a billion or so each”.

This is where I begin to sound mean-minded: how can Gates and his wife be described as very generous when, even if they give away the bulk of their fortune, they will still be billionaires? We can’t all act like St Anthony; businesses have to be run and families have to be housed, clothed, fed and kept warm (not cheap with British Gas). But the Gospel tells us that Jesus, watching people put their money in the treasury, compared the widow and her mite favourably to those who only gave their surplus. Mother Teresa used to say, “Give until it hurts.” Does it actually hurt Bill Gates to give away billions when he is hanging on to even a few billion for himself?

I told you I am mean-minded. Still, there are no pockets in a shroud. If any would-be philanthropist or Russian oligarch should read this blog, they are welcome to send me a large cheque – and test my (at present unswerving) determination to donate it all to charity. I watched a real Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, talk to Jeff Randall on TV last night; he cracked a few jokes and agreed that he used to enjoy reading Conan Doyle. He doesn’t sound that bad after all. Perhaps he needs suggestions as to how to give his immense fortune away to good causes?

  • Nat_ons

    Ah! Generous to a fault, yes indeed, but not quite wise withal – nor anything like holy to God (other than to his own gods, be these only the individually-crafted idols of ‘doing some good’, ‘being nice’ or ‘helping’).

    “It firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church’s sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.” Council of Florence, On Union With the Copts.In what does he place his faith, one wonders; it seems, with his well-meaning but erroneous wife, in worldly principles not divine gift – the one body with one faith: the bosom and the unity of the catholic church!

  • Alban

    If you wish to criticise Bill Gates, remember he could have kept the lot!

  • Christina Halasz

    I spoke with Scotland Yard recently regarding a business relationship with Gates via Prince Charles.  The subject of Mother Theresa of Calcutta never came up. 

  • Peter

    There are two arguments here, one which is to give in absolute terms and another which is to give in relative terms.

    In absolute terms, Bill Gates has given a vast amount to the poor and, in doing so, has fulfilled Christ’s command to meet the needs of the little ones who are His brethren. 

    In relative terms, he has not given much since he is still fabulously wealthy.  The giving has neither diminished his personal consumption nor increased his personal discomfort or that of his family in any way.

    Whereas he may avoid hell by giving to the least of Christs’s brothers, he will not go straight to heaven because, unlike the widow, he has not given all he has.  

    He is just like the rest of us but on a vastly greater scale, who give what we can comfortably afford.  Only saints and saints-to-be like Mother Teresa can give until it hurts.

  • Christina Halasz

    You ignore the tax breaks to be had through charitable exemptions, among other benefits gained from the flexible economic model of the modern “charity”. A most unfortunate oversight. We should speak to the people operating computers at Wall Street which are able to make trades in a nanosecond; not accessible to peaons outside this little club of theirs.

  • Cestius

    Surely that is a matter between Bill Gates and God and none of our business. Judge not lest ye be judged and so on. The Bible tells each of us individually what we need to do to go to heaven, it isn’t a guide for judging the states of other people’s souls.

  • parepidemos

    Yes, Francis, I do believe that, in this particular case, you are being mean-minded.

  • David Murray

    Don’t criticise Bill Gates when the Vatican is sitting on billions of dollars itself. 

  • OldMeena

    And Bill Gates got none of his wealth from European Fascists. 

  • parepidemos

    From the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:


    15. The Church recognises that in many ways she is linked
    with those who, being baptised, are honoured with the name of Christian, though
    they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of
    communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honour Sacred
    Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a
    sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ,
    the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are
    united with Christ. They also recognise and accept other sacraments within
    their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the
    episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the
    Virgin Mother of God…


    16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are
    related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall
    the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom
    Christ was born according to the flesh. (i.e. the Jews). On account of their
    fathers, this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the
    gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also
    includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these
    there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with
    us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.


    Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images
    seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all
    things,  and as Saviour wills that all
    men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their
    own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and
    moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them
    through the dictates of conscience.  Nor
    does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who,
    without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of
    God and with His grace strive to live a good life



  • Christina Halasz

    Why import fascism when you can home grow it? You reverse-engineer it and, voila! An even more oppressive economic system to reign down on the masses… just package it as “sexy” and they’ll buy it hook, line and sinker.

  • Peter

    Yes, there is tax relief from charitable giving, but there are also tax havens when one can have all one’s money free of tax and undiminished by charitable giving.

  • JabbaPapa

    Silly question > silly answers.

  • Christina Halasz

    Hence the need to question one’s motivation to run a charity…

  • Philbroadhurst2011


  • Guest

    I wonder if these sour grapes are related to Melinda Gates advocating & promoting contraception for women? 

  • Davdon

    Very narrow and unchristian way of looking at things

  • OldMeena

    In reply: “?”

    But I mentioned European Fascism because Mussolini’s multi-million cash reward to the Vatican (for recognition), which was used to build up an international real-estate portfolio, has recently been in the news – at least in the UK.

  • Christina Halasz

    The Vatican is an ugly place full of lies. That’s why I deal directly with the Pope himself.

  • OldMeena

    “.. but there are also tax havens..”

    Yes, the Vatican has used these for money laundering for many years.

    PS: See Mussolini’s “gift”.

  • OldMeena

    Oooh!! I never thought of that   : – )

    I bet nobody else has either!

  • Christina Halasz

    Is it fair to say it never would have crossed my mind?

  • Nelsonhistory

    idiot were do you think European money comes from communist ?

  • Peter

    In Bill Gates’ case the motive is genuinely altruistic, but not to the point where it hurts.

  • Parasum

    I remember thinking £20 was a lot. It was. So was £5 (This was before the country was swindled by Heath). But what of it ? Wealth is relative. That Bill Gates or the Queen or the Duke of Northumberland or some Russian has trilliards of the green stuff, is meaningless by itself. Was Queen Victoria wealthier than the Queen ? By some measures – exchange rates, scarcity of desired commodities, etc., – quite possibly. Is that of any ethical importance ? I don’t see how. Pius IX had frills and furbelows no Pope since has possessed – again, what of it ? The Papacy gives away gargantuan sums of money, if it still gives as many billions of dollars as it did ten years ago. 

    The mere aggregation of possessions or wealth in the hands of one person, whether human or corporate, is in itself of no consequence: mere bigness is no index of value. If it were, Mount Everest would be of greater value than any human being. A line of noughts, however long, is purely relative – it can always be extended. The Duke of Northumberland is better off than some – and wretchedly poor compared to others.

    At least Bill Gates is trying to do some good with his wealth. Logically, the author of this piece is no better of than he is, and possibly worse. Maybe the numerically colossal amounts of cash he possesses are not in practice quite so Brobdingnagian as they may seem from the numbers. If he does succeed in helping to eradicate polio & malaria, then good for him.

  • Parasum

    The Italian Government in 1929 was Fascist – it does not follow that whatever it did was a formally Fascist action: there is nothing peculiar to Fascism in having a foreign policy or an army or a judiciary.

    There is nothing inherently Fascist in regularising relations with the Papacy. The Vatican, however vulnerable to criticism for its political conduct, is not as vulnerable to criticism for the Lateran Pact (or the Concordat with Germany in 1934) as some posters in comboxes think.

  • Parasum

    “…he will not go straight to heaven because, unlike the widow, he has not given all he has.”

    ## Source, please ?

  • Parasum

     Wrong. It was a fairly obvious connection to make. The writer may be a “mean”  person, but some of us are cynical – so we make the connections. You lose :) 

  • Christina Halasz

    That’s not what I heard.

  • Christina Halasz

    Strange how those of us who dig through history textbooks as a means to appear better informed on public message boards are the most inclined to repeat these atrocities. I put down links when I use historical evidence to substantiate my point. I’m not pretentious…

  • Jeannine

    I believe Francis is correct to criticize Bill Gates.

     Most likely Bill Gates is not paying any payroll tax. Why? Much of his worth is from Microsoft shares. He donated alot if not all to tax-exempt trust funds & non-profit foundations where he has control over the management of these funds & foundations.

    So the next question should be, did Bill Gates donate his wealth to avoid taxes & have control over his wealth? I don’t criticize him for wanting control the wealth he legally earned & avoid paying taxes. (There are some wise people out there who believe it is their duty to legally avoid paying taxes.) Everyone has a right to do what they want with their money. Yet, it annoys me to no end that he & others like him believe they are only entitled to these tax breaks while encouraging the government to increase the payroll & other taxes for the poor & middle classes. This is so hypocritcal.

    I don’t think that Mr Gates is sincere in donating his money for purely altrustic reasons that Jesus would approve of. There seems to be a bit of power-grabbing behind Bill Gates’ actions.

  • Christina Halasz

    Well lah-te-dah, pass the caviar and that napkin overt there… and refill my wine glass, Jeeves.

  • Christina Halasz

    We could argue caste system structure but that might open a really ugly can of worms. There are miscreants in every walk of life as there are courteous people. It’s none of my business what anyone does for that matter until they infringe on my right. Then there are those who cannot watch someone else eat without ripping the food from their plates. It takes all kinds… how much money do you think the general public would say Gates was allowed to earn in a given year if his income stream were crowd-sourced? What?! That idea doesn’t appeal to you? How unfortunate.

  • Jeannine

    What are you trying to say!?

    Bill Gates can do whatever he want to do with his money. Who cares! I resent the fact that he doesn’t want me, a middle class person, to do what I want with my money but for me, not him to give more to the government. And that’s a fact!

    I don’t know what you are trying to say when writing that “…income stream was crowd-sourced”. And it’s hypocrisy that does not appeal to me.

  • Christina Halasz

    It’s enough that Gates and the writer of this piece understand what I’m talking about. So far I have yet to see complaint from either of them.

  • Peter

    Mark 12:41-44

  • Jeannine

    Then don’t reply to my posts!

  • Mikethelionheart

    Moronic nonsense.
    You should have more intelligence than to believe the BS you get in the Guardian.

    There was not a single new thing in that article. The money was Italian money. It was not fascist money. Are my taxes, which are currently being collected by a tory government, tory money? Is the aid we give to other countries, the money for the NHS, teachers’ wages, the funding for the army all tory money? 

  • Dodgson

    How silly.  Bill keeps money because he can make more money (and do it better than all but a few).  He would still be the richest in the world if he hadn’t given so much away.  I have no problems with what he is doing, whenever he sees a cause he wants to support he does so financially, he doesn’t just throw money away though.  Organizations like the Catholic church are much worse with their obscene riches never helping the common folk while they continue bilking old people out of the money they can scarce afford.  I have an idea!  Buy fucking condoms, they do shittons more than abstinence only policies do for alleviating poverty and disease.

  • Aline

    People who fund population control and the killing of innocent children in the womb in poor countries cannot possibly be called “generous”. It would make no difference even if he gave until it hurt.

  • OldMeena

    The report (and yes, I agree it’s “a reminder”) was in The Times and The Telegraph too (and doubtless elsewhere). 
    It was what we would today call “an extra-ordinary decision”, made for a political favour, from the most corrupt of institutions, for the benefit of the most detestable of political parties.

    And ALL done for money!

  • OldMeena

    The only morality employed by the Vatican was the wish for financial gain.

    Don’t they have ANY conscience?

    We have a “Proceeds of Crime Act” in the UK.  But there is no prospect of the Vatican doing the decent (proper) thing.

  • OldMeena

    The only morality employed by the Vatican was the wish for financial gain.
    Don’t they have ANY conscience?
    We have a “Proceeds of Crime Act” in the UK.  But there is no prospect of the Vatican doing the decent (proper) thing.

  • OldMeena

    I regret you do not understand my posting.

    Try again, if you like.

  • JessicaHof

    Mr Gates follows in a long line of philanthropists. But whether supporting measures to stop people coming into existence counts as philanthropy is an interesting question.

  • Christina Halasz

    Your efforts to cause derision in your tepid blog will not change the focus on Melinda Gates’ ill use of Catholic doctrine to breach anti-competition law.

  • Christina Halasz

    I think what we need to have is an open discussion of the Catholic Church and ethnicity. I’ve noticed that the Central to Eastern European representatives for the Western propaganda machine who feign servitude to this faith are all on the dark side in terms of skin color. It’s all about their jobs and has little to do with effective social engineering. They bitch and whine about human rights but it’s all about the money for them; they leap to pull the race card then they criticize the Church for infractions against humanity. I think they ought to be banned from the Internet for terrorist activities.

  • Mikethelionheart

    No personal abuse there at all. Seems to have a talent for seeing what’s not there.
    It was nothing extra-ordinary. Just the results of negotiations that had been going on for a long time. Since long before the fascists came to power.
    Perhaps you should do more research into history if you want to comment about it so much, so publicy and so hatefully.

  • JessicaHof

    If I had the slightest idea what you were going on about, I still wouldn’t be bothered.

  • Dr. JFK

    Bill Gates ‘s wife, who represents Bill Gates, has used billions in Africal to help the Africans by setting up sources of abortion clinics and abortifacts to redusce the population to help tghe econonomy rather than helping them to survive. She has used the monies to murder the innocents. I know that it is murder after 40 + years in Medicine.