Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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Gates Foundation sets two-year power-sharing trial

Plans in place if two cannot continue roles after divorce

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NEW YORK — Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates will continue to work together as co-chairs of their foundation even after their planned divorce. However, if after two years Gates and French Gates decide they cannot continue in their roles, French Gates will resign her positions as co-chair and trustee, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday.

If French Gates resigns, Gates would essentially buy her out of the foundation, one of the world’s largest private charitable organizations, and she would receive resources from him to do her own philanthropic work. The resources received would be separate from the foundation’s endowment, according to the announcement.

Mark Suzman, the foundation’s CEO, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the announcement was made so the former couple could be “transparent about an agreement they’ve made with each other.”

“That is part of the private agreement between the two of them as part of their wider divorce agreement,” Suzman said. “They’ve both assured me, individually and together, and in the way they’ve been showing up in the work for the last two months, that their full intent and commitment is to be long-term co-chairs trustees of the foundation. And that’s exactly what we’re planning around.”

To reflect that commitment to continue the Gates Foundation together, Gates and French Gates announced an additional $15 billion to the foundation’s endowment, which had stood at nearly $50 billion. It’s the largest private foundation in the world, granting out $5 billion annually for programs in global health, education and other areas.

“It makes sense if somebody is going to leave to do their own thing, it would be Melinda,” said David Callahan, the founder of the Inside Philanthropy website and author of “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.”

French Gates has raised her profile on women’s and girls’ issues in recent years. In 2019, she committed $1 billion toward advancing gender equality in the U.S., citing the low rates of women in leadership positions. She was also one of the speakers at last week’s U.N. Women’s Generational Equality Forum, where the Gates Foundation made a $2.1 billion, five-year pledge to advance gender equality.

“You could easily imagine her going off and starting a new philanthropic enterprise that’s focused on gender equity and women’s empowerment that’s very different than the Gates Foundation,” Callahan said. “But it’s hard to imagine Bill Gates starting his own thing outside the Gates Foundation, because much of what he’s interested in is what the Gates Foundation does.”

Suzman also announced Wednesday that the foundation would expand its board of trustees, though the number of trustees has not been determined. Currently, only Gates and French Gates are on the board of trustees, after Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett resigned in June. His departure, Suzman says, signaled to the group that it was time to expand its leadership.

“We thought even if (Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates) do work effectively and continue to work effectively together, that’s not going to be optimal governance,” Suzman said. “And so, this is the right time to expand the number of trustees and bring in some independent and thoughtful outside voices who can help guide and strengthen the foundation over the long term.”

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