What the Divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates Means for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
The dissolution of one marriage has ramifications for the 1,600 staff members who oversee the annual distribution of $5 billion in grants to 135 countries.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began with ambitious goals that now seem almost childish: offering free internet access to all public libraries in the United States. When the vision of its founders’ goals expanded, the foundation’s influence expanded as well, until it reached its current status as the preeminent private entity in global public health.
The Gates Foundation set a new standard for private philanthropy in the twenty-first century, with 1,600 staff members steering $5 billion in annual grants to 135 countries.
All of that was called into question on Monday, when the world heard that the foundation’s co-chairs had applied for divorce in Washington State after 27 years of marriage. Both grantees and staff members wondered what would happen and whether it would have an effect on the mission.
Bill and Melinda Gates may be divorcing, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is not. Their respective positions as co-chairs and trustees will remain unchanged, and they will continue to set the course for the company bearing their names. Mr. and Mrs. Gates remained committed to the company, Mark Suzman, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive, told workers in an email on Monday.
While Mr. Suzman acknowledged that the couple was going through a “obviously challenging period of personal transition,” he added that “Bill and Melinda asked me specifically to express their profound gratitude for all you do every day, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, as well as for your help and understanding during this trying time.”
The foundation’s $50 billion endowment is held in an irrevocable charitable trust. It cannot be excluded or divided as a marital benefit, according to Megan Tompkins-Stange, a University of Michigan professor of public policy and scholar of philanthropy. She noticed, however, that there was no legal requirement prohibiting them from altering their course.
“I believe that improvements are possible,” she said. “However, as some of the hyperbole around this has suggested, I do not see it as a large asteroid colliding with the field of philanthropy.”
Bill Gates has been a source of interest in the United States almost since he emerged as a co-founder of Microsoft, the prototypical tech genius turned entrepreneur, the nerdy foil to Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks and arty designs. He became the world’s wealthiest guy, and after the Justice Department’s 1998 antitrust case against Microsoft, he was dubbed the new John D. Rockefeller, for better or worse.
However, over the decades since, he has changed his reputation through the work he and Ms. Gates have accomplished together through the foundation, being better known for his generosity rather than his business ruthlessness. The nearly $55 billion donated by the Gates Foundation also provided the pair with instant access to heads of state and business leaders.
Ms. Gates has established her own profile, both through her work for the foundation and through her firm, Pivotal Ventures, which she has used to invest in women’s economic empowerment causes since 2015. Observers noted that Ms. Gates’ Twitter profile now includes her maiden name, French.
The couple used their ties last year to rally support for their plans, contacting leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The foundation has now dedicated $1.75 billion to its Covid-19 response and was instrumental in forming the global agreement to introduce vaccinations to impoverished countries.
This popularity has also drawn criticism, focusing attention on Mr. Gates’s tenacious protection of intellectual property rights — in this case, vaccine patents — even during times of acute crisis, as well as the broader issue of how unelected affluent individuals can play such a significant role on the global stage.
“In a democratic civil society, a single couple’s personal choices should not cause university research centers, service providers, and charities to seriously consider their viability,” Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences, said.
Ms. Gates filed for divorce in Superior Court in King County, Wash., on Monday, describing the union as “irretrievably broken” and requesting that the court terminate it. Ms. Gates mentioned in her filing that they were already divorced. She completed the form in Bellevue, Wash., and Mr. Gates completed his portion in Palm Desert, Calif., near their house.
According to the petition, the pair had entered into a separation arrangement. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Ms. Gates received millions of shares of Canadian National Railway and AutoNation on Monday worth a combined $1.8 billion from Cascade Investment, Mr. Gates’ holding company.
While the $1.8 billion is a sizable fortune by almost any measure, it represents less than 2% of Mr. Gates’s estimated net wealth and is likely just a first step in the eventual division of the couple’s marital properties. Bloomberg previously reported on the transfers.
Prior to the divorce announcement, the Gates Foundation was undergoing a period of transition. The pandemic shut down its Seattle headquarters as workers drawn from the highest levels of government health departments and the pharmaceutical industry attempted to mobilize a response to the lethal, rapidly spreading new coronavirus.
And as Mr. Gates’ public image rose during the pandemic, so did unfounded conspiracy theories such as the global immunization initiative was a cover for Mr. Gates to implant microchips to monitor people, which were obviously false but nevertheless had a detrimental effect on vaccine hesitancy.
Mr. Gates’s father, Bill Gates Sr., who was also a co-chair of the foundation, died in September. While the younger Mr. Gates was still at the helm of Microsoft, the elder Mr. Gates initially took the lead on his son’s charitable efforts. Bill Gates Sr. was widely regarded as a steady voice and moral compass within the company, despite his recent retreat.
Warren E. Buffett, the third trustee, turned 90 last year and has begun discussing succession plans at his firm, Berkshire Hathaway.
Dr. Morey added that the recent reforms could also provide an opportunity to grow the foundation’s board of directors while growing transparency into its decision-making. “Part of the anxiety stems from the Gates Foundation’s lack of accountability in its day-to-day operations,” she said.
Mr. and Mrs. Gates’ marriage had been rocky in recent years, with moments when it seemed to be on the verge of failure, according to those close to them. Now that they have formalized and legalized the split, those in their orbit are scrambling to ascertain what this means for the base. Some worry that Ms. Gates will devote more time to Pivotal Ventures while Mr. Gates continues to focus on his private office, Gates Ventures. Others dismiss such concerns as exaggerated.
“Bill and Melinda have both pursued their own endeavors. They’ve always prioritized that and their foundations,” said Greg Ratliff, senior vice president at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and a former Gates Foundation employee. “It will continue to be a tremendously powerful base, and each of them will be as influential individually as I believe they were collectively.”
Although it is clear that the foundation will continue to operate with its considerable wealth, the Gates fortune, which Forbes estimates at $124 billion, remains an open question. The divorce would have no effect on funds already contributed to the foundation trust, but the couple will contribute less money to it over time than they would have if they had remained together.
“People are entitled to feel disoriented about the foundation’s direction,” said Ms. Tompkins-Stange of the University of Michigan. “There is some uncertainty, as there often is in divorce, but they seem committed to co-parenting the foundation.”