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The foundation that Bill Gates built

Organization that will get Microsoft chair's full attention stresses global health, education, libraries and the Pacific Northwest.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation regularly makes headlines as the largest charitable foundation in the country.

On Thursday, it made headlines again, but for a different reason--Gates' big announcement that he intends, in 2008, to shift his main focus from his day-to-day duties in the corporate world to his foundation's philanthropic work.

In some ways, this won't equal a drastic life change for Gates.

Special coverage: The end of the Gates era

As the Seattle-based foundation's only two trustees, Gates and his wife Melinda have been deeply entrenched in its workings since it began in 1994--work that has taken Gates from corporate boardrooms to remote African villages to meetings with leaders of global organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

In its 12 years of operation, the foundation has donated $10.5 billion in grants, including a 10-year, $750 million dollar grant to the Global Alliance to help fund childhood vaccinations in underdeveloped countries (in 2005, about 70 percent of the foundation's grants went toward global efforts). (Last year, Forbes magazine estimated Gates' worth at $51 billion, making him the world's richest man.)

The foundation donates roughly $1.5 billion each year to four major areas: global health, education, global libraries and the Pacific Northwest. Grants go to other areas, including microfinance, agricultural development, water, sanitation and hygiene.

With an endowment of $29.1 billion, the foundation focuses in particular on global causes such as finding a cure for and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. In February 2005, the foundation promised as much as $360 million over a five-year span to assist in the search for an AIDS vaccine.

Looking toward other diseases, the foundation last May donated $140 million to fighting tuberculosis, and last year also granted $258 million to fund the development of a vaccine and new drugs to combat malaria, or the "forgotten epidemic," as Gates calls it.

As the scope of the foundation's grants expands, so does its leadership. In 2006, three additional high-level positions were created in the form of presidencies that will oversee work in the United States and on global health and global development.

In the foundation's 2005 annual report, Gates said he wanted to spread the word to his partners and the public about the foundation, its efforts and research as well as the impacts the grants are having.

This afternoon, Gates may have taken a step toward furthering that goal.