Sunday, February 11, 2007


In 2006, for the first time, Microsoft topped the annual Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient Survey list that gauges the public's perception of corporate reputation. Microsoft's prestige was undoubtedly elevated in part by the philanthropic efforts of its chairman, Bill Gates, even though those efforts are conducted separately from the company.

But recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under fire. A series of articles in The Los Angeles Times reported that some of the foundation's endowment is invested in businesses, such as oil companies, that pollute the air and cause some of the health problems that the foundation seeks to cure. The foundation's initial response was that it will not review each investment to look at a company's environmental record or other policies. Instead it will stay focused on the foundation's core issue of helping to "reduce inequities in the United States and around the world."

The Gates Foundation is hardly alone among foundations whose missions conflict with the activities of some of the companies in which they invest. The question is: Should foundations make sure that they don't invest in companies that run counter to their efforts, or are these two separate and unrelated issues? What do you think?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Susan Hammond said...

When I started my investments about five years ago, I went in with the idea that I would only invest in companies who were "socially responsible." And I have to say that my funds have grown very slowly after a big setback in their first year. But, as much as I would love to see my portfolio do very well, I have hung tough with my principles because I do not want personal gain over the wider good. And, honestly, this decision is driven by my faith in God. I have to answer to Him for how I use the money He has entrusted to me.
The Gates' situation is much more complex than mine, and I have no idea where they are in matters of faith.
Because I do not know all the details involved, I am in no position to pass "judgment" on the Gates' financial decisions. But, if they are willing, perhaps they can begin to make any "necessary" corrections in their investments by looking at the most egregious conflicts of interest and work through the rest from there over a period of time.
The bottom line is that they want to help people and that is a good thing. But because a wad of cash doesn't always provide the relief intended or really needed, my prayer is that they have wise and truthful counselors to guide them through a very messy, very needy, hands-out-everywhere, it's-not-all-it-seems, world.
Susan Hammond
Irvine, California

Susan Hammond said...

P.S. to my first comment: Yes, foundations should, as much as possible, avoid a conflict of interest from their stated objectives of offering help with their financial investments. I think that is, overall, a wise approach.
Susan Hammond
Irvine, California

Anonymous said...

I believe you are asking an "either/or" type of question. I do think that if someone wants to invest in a company, that company should be checked to see if compatible with the investor's interests and efforts... This should not be a difficult job, unless, like the Gates Foundation there are an excess of entities to be checked. Nevertheless, companies are like people, some do things I don't like while doing other things of which I strongly approve and support. I think it is a problem of which activity will override the other activity by my personal criteria... Will the "negative" be of such a degree that it will cause me to refuse to consider the "positive," or vice versa. The real problem arises when I approve of the activities of the company with the same intensity that I disapprove of their other activities. In that case, I'll have to determine, which in my opinion produces the most good for society. I really don't think the answer has to be one way or the other.

Mort Nickell
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, foundations should make sure that they don't invest in companies that run programs against their core values and mission. The role of the charitable organizations is to invest their assets into philanthropy – social programs that positively impact lives of people and their environment. If a company invest into an oil company that pollutes the environment, it is no longer a charitable program but some interest in some business.

Tomasz Babula
Glendale Heights, IL

Carroll Straus said...

There are several questions here:

1. If you are investing to increase your wealth, is everything OK to invest in? or should you pick and choose based on your core values?

2. IF YOU ARE A CHARITY OR A PHILANTHRPIST is there a different answer to question number 1?

I read the Times series and noted the responses-- yes, there were several-- by the foundation. At first they seemed to say "maybe we should look at aligning the values we state with the investments we make. Then the second response was "never mind." (I am paraphrasing.)

The problem is, the things that tend to be the most lucrative are almost ALWAYS harmful or immoral or both. Sex, drugs, and oil come to mind.

Gates and his foundation are "sui generis"-- not like the rest of us, or anyone else. but I think there is indeed hypocrisy afoot here. Gates' power to make COMPANIES better is as great, if not greater, then his ability to make the work/his projects -- immunization etc.-- better.

To say they do not have such power -- which the spokesperson did say--is simply to misstate the facts. and the harm some of his supported investments do is very great indeed.

I think Gates should clean up his act.

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...