Divorce fallout: What happens to Gates Foundation when Bill and Melinda are no longer married?

Bill and Melinda Gates visit women in the village of Jamsaut in Bihar, India. (Photo by the Gates Foundation)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was founded more than 20 years ago and is a global leader in philanthropy. So what happens when it’s not “Bill and Melinda” anymore?

With news released on Monday of Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce, questions are raised about the future of their creation.

In terms of wealth and influence, the foundation is “the most important philanthropic foundation in the world,” she said Benjamin Soskis, co-founder and editor of HistPhil, a website devoted to the history of philanthropy. “To the extent that this affects the foundation itself, it is of immense consequence.”

The Seattle-based organization has nearly $ 50 billion in foundation assets and has made nearly $ 55 billion in grants over the years.

The couple said in their joint tweet on Monday that they believe in the foundation’s mission and will continue their work together there.

Your organization echoed the sentiment in its statement: “Bill and Melinda remain Co-Chairs and Trustees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. No changes to their roles or organization are planned. They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s problems, and set the general direction of the organization. “

The foundation grants grants in wide-ranging areas including global health and vaccines, equality programs, economic development and agriculture in lower-income countries, and improving education in the U.S. The organization has invested at least $ 1.75 billion in fighting the virus and helped fund the production and purchase of medical supplies.

To the extent that this affects the foundation itself, it is of immense consequence.

The Gateses predictably asked for “space and privacy” in their tweet. But their enormous wealth – Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft at an estimated $ 130.5 billion – coupled with the importance of the philanthropic work in which they have played such central public roles make this difficult, if not impossible .

While this is a personal crisis, “it’s by definition public events in an awkward manner,” said Soskis, who also works as a research fellow at the Urban Institute’s think tank and is funded by the Gates Foundation.

In 2010, the couple co-founded the Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett, an initiative in which billionaires are asked to vow to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime or in their will, rather than donating their lands to descendants. Bill Gates is 65 and Melinda Gates is 56 years old. Bill Gates Sr., formerly the organization’s third co-chair, passed away in September 2020.

The foundation’s focus and approach has shifted over time from a more technocratic style with an emphasis on data, testing, and research – a strategy aligned with Bill – to a more humanistic, community-oriented approach that works more closely with Melinda, so Experts in philanthropy.

Melinda is not the family business person. She is not the capitalist sued by the Justice Department [for antitrust behavior] and built the global company, ”said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, a charity watchdog site.

Bill and Melinda Gates announce the decision to end their marriage after 27 years

As the couple say they will continue to work together, some wonder if Melinda would create her own foundation to draw increased attention to efforts such as empowering women – the focus of her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift – and possibly direct more policies that affect courts or elections.

“If you’re genuinely interested in gender equality, there’s a good chance you’re embarking on a more robust, progressive path,” Callahan said.

He pointed to the aftermath of Amazon founders Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott’s divorce in 2019. Following their split, Scott has established himself as a major philanthropic donor, giving $ 5.7 billion to wide-ranging social causes with a more liberal outlook last year. Until recently, Bezos and Amazon have been criticized for their limited philanthropic donations.

“It could be that Melinda Gates has been waiting for the freedom to do her own thing, that it will be a great, flaming story of a new and independent Melinda Gates philanthropy that looks different from what was before what we were saw Scott with MacKenzie, ”Callahan said. “Or it could be the status quo with some improvements.”

Over the years, Bill and Melinda Gates have set their own priorities for giving and investing.

In 2015, Bill Gates launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $ 2 billion fund to help startups that support carbon emissions. This initiative has evolved into Breakthrough Energy, an umbrella organization that includes six programs to combat climate change. Bill Gates recently published a climate book and spent months doing interviews and discussing climate challenges and solutions.

Sign at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. (GeekWire / Kurt Schlosser)

Also in 2015, Melinda Gates founded an organization called Pivotal Ventures, an independent business that gave her the opportunity to pursue ideas, projects, and investments that might not fit into the structure of the Gates Foundation. Melinda, who met Gates as a Microsoft employee, published her book in 2019, sharing firsthand her encounters with women around the world who are working to improve their lives and those of their families.

While the Gates Foundation is the largest, there are other philanthropies jointly run by very wealthy couples, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and wife Connie, and hedge fund founder John and Laura Arnold. The private organizations are largely committed only to their founders and are sometimes criticized for a lack of accountability and transparency.

“With these couples, these running businesses, it’s always hard to know who is drawing for which priorities,” Callahan said.

Callahan and Soskis agreed that the Gates’ divorce demonstrated the oversized, unpredictable impact that comes from concentrating wealth in the hands of a few people. The sudden news of a divorce is not a gossip column but a major event with potential social repercussions.

“It’s another example of a universe where individuals, not institutions, play a critical role in the landscape,” said Soskis.

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