By David Gelles, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Nicholas Kulish
Washington: For decades, the Gateses have been powerful forces on the world stage, their vast charitable contributions affording them access to the highest levels of government, business and the nonprofit sector. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of some $US50 billion ($65 billion), has had immense influence in fields like global health and early-childhood education, and has made great strides in reducing deaths caused by malaria and other infectious diseases.
On Tuesday (AEST), Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the richest people in the world, who reshaped philanthropy and public health with the fortune Bill Gates made as a co-founder of Microsoft, announced they were divorcing.
In a joint petition for dissolution of marriage filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle, the couple stated: “The marriage is irretrievably broken.”
Over the past year, they have been especially visible, regularly commenting on the worldwide fight against COVID-19 as their foundation spent more than $US1 billion to combat the pandemic.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” the Gateses said in a statement that was posted to Twitter.
They went on to say that they had “built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives” and that they “continue to share a belief in that mission,” but they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
The divorce filing, which states that the couple have no minor children, comes after the youngest of their three children is believed to have recently turned 18. The spouses asked the court to approve their agreement on division of assets but did not disclose details.
The foundation said in a statement the Gateses would remain co-chairs and trustees and that no changes were expected at the organisation.
“They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues and set the organisation’s overall direction,” the statement said.
Even so, the divorce will create new questions about the fate of the Gates fortune, much of which has not yet been donated to the Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, 65, is one of the richest people in the world, worth an estimated $US124 billion, according to Forbes. The Gateses have been married for 27 years and have three children, ages 18 to 25.
“The Gates Foundation is the most important and influential philanthropic entity in the world today,” said Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University. “The divorce may have huge repercussions for the foundation and for its work across the globe.”
With 1600 staff members in offices around the world, it gives away roughly $US5 billion each year in areas like global public health and development. Over more than two decades, it has spent billions to push vaccines to the developing world, working with pharmaceutical executives to transform the market.
The foundation tapped its expertise and relationships to play a significant role in formulating the global response to the pandemic, investing early in vaccine candidates and in the development of diagnostic tests and medical treatments, and helping shape COVAX, the global initiative organising the purchase of vaccines for 92 poor countries and dozens of other nations.
The Gateses have won great praise for their efforts, but the foundation has also received a fair share of criticism for working to protect the intellectual property rights of private companies. That has come into focus now more than ever as many national governments have pressed for open access to COVID vaccines to put an end to the pandemic.
“Bill and Melinda Gates helped pioneer big philanthropy in its present form,” said David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy. “Everything has been outsized.”
A former member of the staff who worked with both Gateses said people in the foundation’s orbit were texting and emailing one another after hearing the news, trying to figure out what had happened and what it might mean for the foundation. The consensus was that it would be fine for the time being, the former staff member said, but there were questions about what the effect would be — depending on how amicable the divorce is and how they work together going forward — the next time it came time to review strategies and future plans.
“While this is obviously a difficult time of personal change for our co-chairs, together they have assured me of their continued commitment to the foundation that they have worked so hard to build together over the past 20 years,” chief executive, Mark Suzman, told employees in an email.
He described “some short-term adjustments to their schedules,” but said both would continue to participate in meetings inside and outside the foundation, and would speak to staff directly at the upcoming annual employee meeting.
While the Gateses did not provide details of how they would structure their finances, they are believed to have a prenuptial agreement. The Gateses are the largest owners of farmland in America and have vast investments though Cascade Investment, which manages Bill Gates’ personal wealth and owns large stakes in the Four Seasons hotel chain, the Canadian National Railway and AutoNation, the country’s largest chain of car dealerships, among other companies. The family’s homes and properties include a 6000-square-metre Washington state mansion, which features amenities such as a trampoline room, a screening room and a multiroom library filled with rare documents and artefacts.
Callahan said Melinda Gates, 56, could assume even more influence in the years ahead.
She already has her own firm, Pivotal Ventures, which she has used to invest in issues related to women’s economic empowerment. (Bill Gates has his own private office, Gates Ventures, for pursuing interests outside the foundation.) Should she receive a portion of Bill Gates’s Microsoft holdings, she could set up a new foundation or make direct gifts to other causes she supports.
“You could imagine Melinda Gates being a much more progressive giver on her own,” Callahan said. “She’s going to be a major force in philanthropy for decades to come.”
In 2019, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and his longtime wife, MacKenzie Scott, divorced. Scott received Amazon shares worth $US36 billion at the time and immediately set about giving away billions of dollars in direct grants to a variety of progressive organisations.
Bill Gates has recently stepped back from some of his business activities. Last year, he left Microsoft’s board of directors, as well as the board of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate run by his close friend Warren Buffett.
Buffett has donated billions of dollars to the Gates Foundation over the years and has pledged to leave the majority of his fortune to it when he dies. In 2010, Buffett and the Gateses created the Giving Pledge, an effort to get wealthy individuals to commit to donating a majority of their money to charitable causes.
The Gateses have faced relationship struggles over the past several years, two people close to them said. There were several times when the relationship neared collapse, but they worked to keep it together, the people said. Bill Gates decided to step down from the boards in part so he could spend more time with his family, these people said.
“When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me, it was about ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?’” Melinda Gates said in an interview in 2019 in The Sunday Times of London. “And, believe me, I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, ‘Can I do this?’”
The New York Times, Reuters