World's richest man to be its leading philanthropist

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BILL GATES' personal charitable foundation is close to being the world's largest after he and his wife donated another $5bn (pounds 3bn).

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has now overtaken all others in America, and rivals Britain's Wellcome Trust. The Microsoft boss looks set to be remembered as the world's greatest philanthropist, whatever judgement history passes on his business methods.

With the new donation, the fund now has total assets of $17.1bn. The Wellcome Trust is still ahead, with assets of $, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But Mr and Mrs Gates gave $5bn to the foundation in each quarter of this year and if they continue it will overtake Wellcome later this year.

"It is not unrealistic to think the Gates Foundation could reach $50bn, or even $100bn, in assets," said the Chronicle.

The foundation targets the use of information technology as well as medical treatment, including computers for schools and libraries, and plans for a new vaccination against malaria. Mr and Mrs Gates, 42 and 34, previously had two separate foundations, but these have now been consolidated into one. One of the Gates' foundations was formerlynamed after Mr Gates' father, and he will continue to play an active role in the new fund.

Bill Gates is comfortably the world's richest man with a net worth of $90bn, according to Forbes magazine. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, named for an earlier information technology baron, is now the second wealthiest in the US, and the Ford Foundation, long regarded as the most prestigious player in the highly competitive world of philanthropy, is in third place as Internet fortunes transform the world of personal charity.

The Gates' charitable gifts overshadow the other wealthy titans of their age. George Soros, the financier, has given away $2bn, while Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, has promised $1.2bn. If they meetUS government rules, the Chronicle notes, the Gates' foundation will spend $855m next year - $2.3m per day.

The foundation's rapidly growing size has prompted the Gates to reconsider its activities and its public role, the Chronicle says. This week it has arranged a meeting with 40 of the other largest foundations to discuss co-ordinating their activities. It is also moving into a large new headquarters in Seattle from its previous bases - the elder Mr Gates' basement and an office over a pizza restaurant.

The fact Microsoft is under scrutiny as part of a competition inquiry in Washington has spurred suspicions that Mr Gates is trying to improve his image. Many of the revelations in the case have centred on his personal behaviour, and the government has alleged he used predatory behaviour to drive his rivals out of business. There have also been claims the Gates were simply maximising their tax position.

But the elder Mr Gates denied that the new gifts had anything to do with tax. "Anybody who understands the rule about tax deductions knows that the one thing that works against you is to make a lot of big gifts all in one year," he said.