What will Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce mean for their foundation?
Bill and Melinda Gates announced Monday that they are divorcing — immediately raising questions about how their split after 27 years of marriage could affect their status as two of the world’s greatest philanthropists.
The Microsoft Corp. co-founder and his wife, who operate the world’s largest private family charitable foundation, said they would continue their work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which said in a statement that the couple would remain as co-chairs and trustees.
“No changes to their roles or the organization are planned. They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction,” the statement said.
Still, David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, a digital publication, said there are “a lot of unanswered questions here.”
The couple, along with Warren Buffett, are the creators of the Giving Pledge, which requires signatories to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes, either during their lifetimes or in their wills.
The couple’s sprawling Seattle foundation is easily the most influential private foundation in the world, with an endowment worth nearly $50 billion. It has focused on global health and development and U.S. education issues since incorporating in 2000.
However, there is a possibility that after a divorce settlement, Melinda Gates may want to create her own foundation too and give to different causes.
“There’s no particular reason to think that anything will change with the foundation and its work. It has a large endowment. It has a professional staff of 1,600 people. It has a set of really well-developed programs,” Callahan said. “To me, the big question is, does Melinda get a sizable divorce settlement? And if so, what does she do in terms of forging her own path as an independent philanthropist?”
The possibility that Melinda Gates may want to strike out on her own will be closely watched after MacKenzie Scott, following her divorce from Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, startled the philanthropic world by donating more than $4 billion in the span of four months last year.
Bezos kept three-quarters of the couple’s Amazon shares in the divorce, while Scott received some $36 billion in shares, making her one of the world’s richest people. She wrote in a post on Medium that she felt compelled to speed up her giving because “this pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling.”
Once the world’s wealthiest person, Bill Gates is now worth an estimated $131 billion by Forbes. That’s less than Bezos, who has a net worth of about $197 billion, but still enough to rank him the world’s fourth wealthiest person.
Callahan said that Bill and Melinda Gates still have vast amounts to give and there are indications that Melinda may want to focus more on women’s empowerment, which has been one focus of the couple’s foundation over the last five years.
“The Gates Foundation released an annual letter every year that was written by Bill Gates. And then a few years ago, they started writing that letter together. And so that was sort of widely seen as a sign of her kind of stepping up and wanting to play a more joint role in shaping the foundation’s priorities,” he said. “What we don’t know is how much she would like to do.”
The couple married in 1994 in Hawaii. They met after she began working at Microsoft as a product manager in 1987.
In her 2019 memoir, “The Moment of Lift,” Melinda Gates wrote about her childhood, life and private struggles as the wife of a public icon and as a stay-at-home mom with three kids. She won Gates’ heart after meeting at a work dinner, sharing a mutual love of puzzles and beating him at a math game.
As the public face of the foundation’s COVID-19 grants and advocacy work, Bill Gates has come under fire for being a staunch supporter of intellectual property rights for vaccine makers. While the tech icon says protecting the shots’ recipes will ensure incentives for research and development, critics say that mentality hampers supply in favor of drug company profits.
Last year, Gates said he was stepping down from Microsoft’s board to focus on philanthropy.
Gates was Microsoft’s CEO until 2000 and since then has gradually scaled back his involvement in the company he started with Paul Allen in 1975. He transitioned out of a day-to-day role in Microsoft in 2008 and served as chairman of the board until 2014.
International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides emergency medical and other healthcare services around the world, has been a recipient of significant Gates Foundation funding. It has received millions over the years from the foundation, which the group said has been crucial to its mission.
“Over and over, when crises erupt, the Gates Foundation steps up, providing International Medical Corps with emergency response support to communities that are hardest hit, whether it’s fighting Ebola in West Africa, polio in Cameroon, or cholera in Haiti,” International Medical Corps CEO Nancy Aossey said in a statement. “I’m confident that Bill and Melinda Gates’ philanthropic passion and dedication will continue for a long time to come.”
Times wire services contributed to this report.