Bill Gates helped build Microsoft's legacy around the world. But Bill and Melinda Gates are building a different brand. This week, Microsoft's chairman...

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Bill Gates helped build Microsoft’s legacy around the world. But Bill and Melinda Gates are building a different brand.

This week, Microsoft’s chairman will shift his focus from the fate of software to the fate of the world. He will join his wife in applying his energy full time to the now $37 billion foundation they created a decade ago.

Gates said he’ll bring the same “optimism, focus on scientific breakthroughs and rigorous measurements” that characterize Microsoft to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But comparisons between philanthropy and business go only so far, especially with the complexity of poverty, hunger and disease at the center of his mission.

In pushing into new frontiers, such as vaccines for malaria and HIV/AIDS, Gates said there are some similarities with Microsoft’s approach, namely “the idea of breakthroughs that can really change things, and getting the best scientists together and knowing that there will be failures and being constant with the same focus.”

But “the two are about as different as any two organizations can be in terms of what they do,” he said. “Microsoft never sent me to the slums.”

Philanthropists and health advocates said they hope Gates will use his voice to elevate the issues of inequality on the world stage.

“The credibility of the brand of Bill and Melinda Gates is very powerful,” said Jay Naidoo, a former labor activist and government minister in South Africa who is a member of the Gates Foundation’s advisory board on global health.

Gates can provide “more traction in getting these issues on the agenda, in the U.N. system and governments around the world,” he said. Gates’ “participation on a full-time basis is actually very important.”

The foundation has set ambitious goals such as eradicating malaria and sparking a revolution in African agriculture at a time when many countries are in the midst of a food crisis.

Gates, who will continue to serve as chairman of Microsoft’s board of directors, said his presence would intensify the foundation’s work.

“I’ll just have a lot more time to go to classrooms, go to places where these diseases are, to meet with the research scientists thinking about these diseases, reach out to potential partners, whether it’s rich world governments, or pharmaceutical companies, or anybody who cares about these topics,” he said.

One challenge will be drawing a clear distinction between the work of the foundation and the corporation whose profits have funded it, an adviser to the foundation said.

“Large multinational companies like Microsoft do not just have one face they show to the world, and they are not universally loved or hated,” said Kavita Ramdas, president and chief executive of the Global Fund for Women, a nonprofit grant-making foundation that works for women’s rights. She is a member of the Gates Foundation’s advisory panel on global development.

“On one hand, everybody uses Word,” Ramdas said. “On the other hand, they are seen as sort of a science company, and in many parts of the world, particularly Europe, they are seen as kind of the big bully.”

The challenge for a foundation like the Gateses’ is “to identify the work of the foundation as being very distinct from the reach and power of the corporation,” she said. “That’s always challenging because the corporation gives you such incredible resources and access all over the world.”

The same fine line applied to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, which arose from the success of the automobile and oil industries.

“If you end up in a situation where philanthropy is self-serving toward the needs of business, you are going to end up jeopardizing the philanthropy,” Ramdas said.

Cues from business world

Running the world’s largest philanthropy raises other expectations.

“One of my hopes is that Bill will be willing to step up now in his role as a voice in philanthropy,” said Steve Gunderson, president and chief executive of the Council on Foundations, a nonprofit association of more than 2,000 grantmakers.

Foundations in the U.S. are facing questions about how they invest their endowment assets, which amount to about $500 billion and are not taxed. The Gates Foundation has largely ruled out aligning its own investments with the goals of its programs. While its programs seek social benefit, its investments seek financial returns and are not screened for social impact. But scrutiny of the issue isn’t going away.

“More and more public policymakers are going to look at us and ask questions: Are we using those investments for the public good or for other purposes?” Gunderson said.

Gates “will do far better in philanthropy today than he would have done a decade ago,” he said. That’s because philanthropy has taken cues from the business world and changed from making grants to making strategic investments and measuring impact.

Technology not enough

In the end, Gates’ job is still about people, said Trish Millines Dziko, a former Microsoft manager who left the company in the 1990s and started the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation, which provides technology education to minority students.

“It’s not just the science of: What does it take to end malaria?” Dziko said. “It’s: How do I get it to the people, how do the people trust me, how do we sustain it … and what does success mean?”

Speaking from experience, she said, the sharp focus honed at the company may clash with a culture where broader concerns are heard first.

Ramdas called technology “a wonderful arrow in a quiver that should contain many arrows.”

She said she has no doubts about “the focus, intention and commitment of the foundation.” But she expressed “serious reservations about technology as the magic bullet” to solve the world’s problems.

“Without political will and social commitment, technology can just as easily work in the opposite direction,” she said. “Just dropping a computer in the hands of a poor community is not, in and of itself, going to change the circumstances people find themselves in.”

To achieve the foundation’s goals, Gates said, it’s important to combine technology with the right market conditions. Technology to develop vaccines doesn’t work without the proper market forces to make medicines more affordable, he said.

“Pregame excitement”

Gates will travel to China this summer, India in the fall and Africa in January.

The process of getting him up to speed includes deepening relationships with partners, including World Bank President Robert Zoellick, said foundation Chief Executive Patty Stonesifer, who has been preparing to step down this fall after 10 years and hand the CEO job to another longtime friend of Gates, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s Business Division.

The foundation’s 540 employees are anticipating the prospect of seeing Gates on a regular basis.

“Bill, when he enters a room, when he enters a discussion, it’s like having a really good tennis player,” Stonesifer said. It “ups everybody’s game.”

“If you’re going to play with a champion player, does it cause a certain amount of pregame excitement? Absolutely.”

Stonesifer said she is looking forward to Gates bringing his laser focus to bear on problems like delivery, asking why so many great technologies that have been developed don’t end up improving the situation for the poor.

“Everybody’s looking at things this way,” she said. “He comes at it from another direction.”

Limiting Microsoft’s role

In the foundation, the influence of Microsoft has been limited by design, Stonesifer said.

“We actually made a conscious decision to make sure we have a very diverse group, so we don’t have very many from Microsoft,” she said. “I would say from out of 500 we might have 10 [from the company].”

The broad scope of the foundation’s work needs “a range of thinkers from different disciplines,” she said.

But with Gates’ influence, one common thread running through both organizations is tenacity.

“Bill’s inclination is to make big bets on the highest return opportunity,” Stonesifer said. Even if it fails at first.

“His response to hard problems is to lean in, not back up,” she said. “That kind of resilience and approach to risk is going to be a huge asset.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or

Seattle Times staff reporter Sandi Doughton contributed to this report.