Yes, Bill Gates does have peers -- men like Warren Buffet, Lakshmi Mittal and Carlos Slim Helu. They're among the 10 wealthiest men in the world, and they have more in common that just their outlandish wealth. They've all pledged a portion of their money to philanthropy.
All four have charitable foundations dedicated to causes of their choice. So with billions to spend, how much change can one person make, and just how far should their philanthropy reach?
A look at the giving histories of Gates, Buffett and several others on the Forbes magazine list of wealthiest people suggests the trend is for U.S. billionaires to give the greatest portion of their money to global causes, while foreign billionaire barons tend to focus their wealth within the country that helped them generate the money.
Gates Goes Mostly Global
Gates this week announced plans to ease out of his chief executive position at Microsoft over the next couple of years and dedicate more time to his $30 billion Gates Foundation. Currently, the Gates Foundation employs approximately 250 full-time staffers and said it could easily see that number double in the next few years.
Gates, the world's wealthiest man, has a fortune of more than $50 billion, according to Forbes. But the Harvard dropout said his fortune will go to charity, not his three kids. The majority of those donations will be going toward global initiatives.
Since the Gates Foundation started in 2000, it has targeted primarily global health problems. In 2005 about two-thirds of Gates Foundation grants went to global causes -- fighting diseases like malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries. The foundation will change its angle slightly in the future, aiming to fight poverty worldwide through programs such as small-business loans.
Problem with 'Vanity Foundations'
In the last couple years, Gates has focused more and more on going global with his foundation, taking on challenges such as fighting AIDS in India. But the way Gates is addressing AIDS issues does not sit well with Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
"They're [the Gates Foundation] funding prevention to the exclusion of treatment," said Weinstein. "That's the problem with Gates and other, what I call 'vanity foundations' -- they seek only their own council. When it's public money, you can influence the direction of it."
Gates Foundation chief executive Patty Stonesifer said in the most recent annual report that the foundation will start to look at the root cause of of disease -- poverty. The foundation intends to join with other charities to make their fight a more powerful one.
Last year the Gates Foundation gave out $1.36 billion in grants, an 8 percent increase from 2004, and the greatest growth occurred in global health. Gates nearly doubled his giving in that area in just one year, giving a total of almost $845 million to that initiative.
Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation slashed education funding, which has historically been U.S.-centric, from $708 million to $284 million. That's a 60 percent cut.
Education in the U.S. is the driving force in the philanthropic efforts of fellow American Warren Buffet, the second-wealthiest person in the world.
Currently, the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation, named after Buffet's late wife, primarily supports national initiatives. Buffet pays particular homage to his own state of Nebraska, with a focus on supporting Nebraska residents' in-state educations.
Other Billionaires Country-centric
Outside the United States the giving habits of the rich are a bit different from the Gates way.
Mexico's Carlos Slim Helu is the third-wealthiest billionaire in the world and is Latin America's richest man. Helu earned his $23.8 billion in telecom -- América Movil, his wireless company, and Telmex, his landline company.
The 65-year-old started the Foundation of the Historic Center of Mexico City, dedicated to restoring colonial buildings in Mexico City's historic city center. He's invested approximately $700 million in this project.
Sweden's Ingvar Kamprad ranks as the fourth wealthiest man no the Forbes list, with a nest egg totaling $28 billion. The 79-year-old made his fortune when he founded Ikea, the hip home-furnishings company.
Kamprad founded the Stichting Ingka Foundation, which has a reported $36 billion in assets. The foundation grants money to "innovation in the field of architectural and interior design." The articles of association of Stichting Ingka Foundation, a public record in the Netherlands, state that this object cannot be amended. In fact, if the foundation wants to alter its aim, only a Dutch court can make those changes, and make only minor ones.
Ikea said it uses the majority of the money to build an asset base that will secure the future of the company. The company has concentrated its gifts on its own home front, with the past two years of donations going to the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden.
Lakshmi Mittal, the Rajasthan-born Indian billionaire, ranks as the fifth-wealthiest person in the world. Based in London, the 56-year-old steel titan owns Mittal Steel, the largest producer of steel in the world. Mittal's net worth is $25 billion. A couple of years before Gates started his foundation, Mittal started the LNM Group Foundation in 1998 to support health and education needs of the poor, particularly in India.
The Rockefeller Foundation, created in 1913, is one of the oldest philanthropic family foundations in U.S. history. The foundation, started by John D. Rockefeller, has grown to $3.2 billion in assets and gives out about $124 million in grants annually. The foundation is dedicating more of its assets to global causes, and now two-thirds of grant money goes to supporting global initiatives.
So could a foundation have too much of a global focus and leave America behind? Not according to Richard Tofel, spokesman for Rockefeller Foundation.
"You want to look at where you need to focus most of your efforts, not just draw an arbitrary line," Tofel said. "There are very important needs in this country, but there are a lot of things -- important human needs -- that have to be seen from a broader, global perspective."
Tofel said that despite what most people think about the "foundation world," it is not competitive like the corporate world. "Foundations have the same complementary ends," added Tofel.
Tofel said Rockefeller's International AIDS Vaccine Initiative sparked the Gates Foundation's Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. Going forward, that's a trend people can expect to see in the world of billionaire-run foundations: a collaborative effort.