One of the world’s largest private charities’ founders have pledged to continue their philanthropic work together. Some experts, however, believe that this may be easier said than done.
Bill and Melinda Gates, billionaire benefactors, have announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage, raising concerns about the future of one of the world’s largest and most influential charity organizations.
The couple, who have a combined fortune of more than $130 billion (€108 billion), have been among the most generous philanthropists in recent decades, donating more than $36 billion to the nonprofit Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which they founded in 2000.
With an endowment of nearly $50 billion, their foundation is the largest private philanthropic foundation in the United States and one of the world’s largest. Over the last two decades, the charity organization has spent approximately $55 billion in areas such as malaria and polio eradication, child nutrition, and vaccines in 135 countries. Last year, the foundation committed $1.75 billion to COVID-19 relief.
The Gates have pledged to continue their collaborative philanthropic work, saying they “continue to share a belief in that mission.” The Gates Foundation announced that the couple would continue to serve as co-chairs and trustees of the organization.
“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 foundation said.
However, some experts believe the couple’s divorce may raise new concerns about their wealth, the majority of which has yet to be donated to their foundation. In 2010, the couple publicly committed to donating the majority of their wealth to charity as part of the Giving Pledge, which they co-founded with investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett to encourage billionaires to donate the majority of their wealth to charity.
“The divorce of philanthropy’s most important and consequential couple raises all kinds of questions about the future of @gatesfoundation, and even the future of philanthropy,” political scientist Rob Reich tweeted.
The Stanford University professor expressed hope that the foundation would issue a statement on the implications of the divorce in the near future.
Given the Gates Foundation’s global influence, Anand Giridharadas, author of the book “Winners Take All,” believes the couple’s divorce could have a significant impact on the couple’s humanitarian projects around the world. “The Gates divorce will do more than upend a family’s life. It will ramify into the worlds of business, education, public health, civil society, philanthropy, and beyond,” Giridharadas, a critic of billionaire philanthropists said.
“That is because our society has made the colossal error of allowing wealth to purchase the chance to make quasi-governmental decisions as a private citizen,” he said.
According to Monica Mazzei, a divorce attorney and partner at Sideman & Bancroft LLP in San Francisco, the foundation’s future will be heavily influenced by the extent to which the Gates intend to collaborate in the future.
“Even in the most amicable divorces I’ve seen, the preference has been to split the foundation in half so that there is more autonomy and less intermingling,” she was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. “The same principle holds true for family offices, where investments can be divided into two separate pots.”
The Gates filed for divorce in Seattle’s King County Superior Court. Their divorce petition requested that the court dissolve their marriage and divide their joint assets and liabilities in accordance with their separation agreement. The details of the separation agreement are still unknown.
The divorce comes two years after another high-profile Seattle area billionaire couple divorced.
The law in the couple’s home state of Washington presumes that most property acquired during a marriage belongs jointly to both partners and is divided equally in the event of a divorce.