NEW YORK — Even after their expected divorce, Bill and Melinda French Gates will continue to work together as co-chairs of their organization. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said Wednesday that if Gates and French Gates feel they cannot continue in their roles after two years, French Gates would quit as co-chair and trustee.
If French Gates resigns, Gates would effectively buy her out of the foundation, which is one of the world’s greatest private charity organizations, and she will get funds from him to continue her humanitarian efforts. According to the statement, the funds would be independent of the foundation’s endowment.
The statement was made so the former couple could be “open about an arrangement they’ve made with each other,” according to Mark Suzman, the foundation’s CEO, in an interview with The Associated Press.
“That is part of their private arrangement as part of their larger divorce deal,” Suzman explained. “They’ve both informed me, individually and together, and in the manner, they’ve been showing up in the work over the last two months, that they want to be long-term co-chairs trustees of the foundation. And that’s precisely what we’re working on.”
Gates and French Gates pledged an extra $15 billion to the Gates Foundation’s endowment, which had previously stood at over $50 billion, to symbolize their commitment to maintaining the Gates Foundation – which the Gateses refer to as their “fourth child.” It is the world’s biggest private foundation, with $5 billion in yearly grants for initiatives in global health, education, and other areas.
David Callahan, the creator of the Inside Philanthropy website and author of “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” stated, “It makes sense if someone is going to quit to do their own thing, it would be Melinda.”
In recent years, French Gates has become more vocal about women’s and girls’ problems. She pledged $1 billion in 2019 to advance gender equality in the United States, highlighting the low number of women in leadership roles. She also spoke at the United Nations Women’s Generational Equality Forum last week, when the Gates Foundation pledged $2.1 billion over five years to achieve gender equality.
“You could easily envision her leaving the Gates Foundation and launching a new charitable venture that is focused on gender parity and women’s empowerment,” Callahan said. “However, it’s difficult to envision Bill Gates creating his own organization outside of the Gates Foundation because most of what he’s interested in are done by the Gates Foundation.”
Suzman also stated on Wednesday that the foundation’s board of trustees will be expanded, but the exact number of trustees is unknown. After Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett resigned as a trustee in June, only Gates and French Gates remain on the board of trustees. Suzman claims that his resignation signified to the charity organization that it was time to broaden its leadership.
“We believed that even if they (Bill and Melinda) work well together and continue to do so, that wouldn’t be optimum governance,” Suzman said. “As a result, now is the moment to increase the number of trustees and bring in some independent and intelligent outside voices to assist lead and improve the foundation in the long run.”
The search for new trustees will be led by Suzman and Connie Collingsworth, the foundation’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer. The candidates will next be approved by Bill and Melinda Gates, with new trustees likely to be revealed in January 2022. The changes, according to both Bill and Melinda Gates, will help the foundation’s goal and offer a more varied viewpoint to its leadership.
Many philanthropy experts are likely to be pleased with the announcement, since many have urged for more diversity in the foundation’s leadership, claiming that too much power is concentrated in a few hands. However, Suzman claims that outside pressure to reform has had no impact on their choice to extend the board of trustees.
“Bill and Melinda made this choice in conjunction with Warren when he chose to stand down from the board,” Suzman explained.
After Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage in May, concerns about the foundation’s long-term viability arose. Many people were taken aback by the announcement, including Suzman, who found out about the divorce just 24 hours before it was made public.
“When the two individuals whose names are on the building and who are my bosses announce they’re getting divorced, it’s definitely a surprise,” he added. “I believe the foundation staff was taken aback. But I believe we’ve all adjusted.”
Following recent claims that Bill Gates pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft Corp., the business he co-founded, and at the foundation, the foundation has come under fire. Microsoft determined last year that Gates should not be on its board of directors after an investigation into the billionaire’s previous improper sexual connection with a female Microsoft employee. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has stated that it is not looking into accusations made by “an unnamed former employee” in the media.