What the Gates Divorce Means for the Gates Foundation

The end of one marriage has implications for the 1,600 staff members who direct $5 billion in annual grants to 135 countries.

By Nicholas Kulish

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started with ambitions that, by its lofty standards today, appear almost quaint: providing free internet access to public libraries in the United States. As its founders’ objectives grew in scope, so did the foundation’s reach, until it achieved its current position as the pre-eminent private institution in global public health.

With 1,600 staff members directing $5 billion in annual grants to 135 countries around the globe, the Gates Foundation set a new standard for private philanthropy in the 21st century.

All of that was thrown into question on Monday when the world learned that the foundation’s co-chairs, who had been married for 27 years, filed for divorce in Washington State. Grant recipients and staff members alike wondered what would happen and whether it might affect the mission.

The message from the headquarters in Seattle was clear: Bill and Melinda Gates may be splitting up, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t going anywhere. Their roles as co-chairs and trustees are not changing, and they will still set the agenda for the organization that bears their names. In an email on Monday, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive, Mark Suzman, reassured the staff that both Mr. and Ms. Gates remained committed to the organization.

While noting that it was “obviously a difficult time of personal change for” the couple, Mr. Suzman added that “Bill and Melinda asked me explicitly to express their deep gratitude for everything you do every day, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, as well as for your support and understanding in this difficult time.”

The foundation’s $50 billion endowment is in a charitable trust that is irrevocable. It cannot be removed or divided up as a marital asset, said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor of public policy and scholar of philanthropy at the University of Michigan. She noted, however, that there was no legal mandate that would prevent them from changing course.

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