The Motives Behind Bill Gates' $5B Giveaway

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People tend not to trust the very wealthy. So it's probably not surprising that they questioned the motives of the world's richest man, Bill Gates, when he announced Monday that he had made a $5 billion contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, thus making it the largest charitable foundation in the world. Cynics labeled the move another attempt by Gates to paint himself as a more sympathetic character in Microsoft's ongoing antitrust litigation. The same accusations were made earlier this month when Gates stepped down as Microsoft's CEO, saying he wanted to focus more on his family. And, because a chunk of the Gates Foundation grants go to wiring libraries in poor communities to use the Internet, some conspiracy theorists have gone as far as branding this as a ploy to introduce Microsoft products to a population that can't otherwise afford them... yet.

Then again, is it possible that Gates really does just want to spend more time with his family and do some good for the world? For years, Gates said he'd retire from the mouse race at 40 and spend the rest of his life giving away his billions. Although the Big Four-Oh came and went four years ago and Gates is still doing some work for his company, this plan seems to more or less be coming true. What's more, Gates has grown his fortune from single-digit billions to nearly $90 billion since he was 40, creating a lot more wealth for do-gooding.

There may be something else. Gates is widely viewed as the man who paved the road of the new American entrepreneurship, and this life transition at 40 may be his latest innovation, detailing the way new money forges its legacy. In an age when health-care advances deliver longer life spans, latter-day tycoons have become more concerned with how they'll be thought of once their working days are behind them. By contrast, Henry Ford, the symbol of innovation and entrepreneurship in the first half of the American Century, waited until his 70s to become charitable. Ford, accused of both racism and anti-unionism, was unable to improve his public image during his lifetime. It appears Gates doesn't want to go down the same road.