How will Bill and Melinda Gates' divorce impact their charity?

 

New York, United States: The shock announcement that billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are to divorce after 27 years of marriage has raised questions about the future of their hugely influential charity.

Here, AFP takes a look at the Gates Foundation, from how it works and what projects it finances, to its impact on the pandemic and how the non-profit may be impacted by the split.

Its mission, and vast budget

The couple says the idea for the foundation came to them as young parents when they read a newspaper article about millions of children in developing countries dying from easily treatable illnesses such as diarrhea and pneumonia.

In 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was launched to fight disease and poverty around the world. In the United States, an initial focus on providing access to computers and the internet was expanded to improving education in general.

With 1,600 staff members in offices around the world, the Gates Foundation gives away roughly $5 billion each year in areas like global public health and development.

The foundation says it has spent $54.8 billion since its inception.

More than $2 billion has gone towards fighting malaria alone with the aim of eradicating the mosquito-borne disease "within a generation."

The charity has also contributed several billion dollars towards a global campaign to end polio through the widespread immunization of children. It donated more than $50 million during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Dozens of other programs it funds include nutrition, sanitation, maternal and newborn child health, and agricultural development.

Battling the pandemic

Last year, the foundation pledged about $250 million to help fight the pandemic, with some of the funds channeled to the distribution of life-saving doses of Covid-19 vaccines to parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The money also went to testing, personal protective equipment, and support of overwhelmed health services, particularly in developing countries.

It was also key in forming Covax, a global program to help supply vaccines to the poorest countries.

In total, the foundation says it has spent some $1.75 billion fighting Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

It found itself embroiled in controversy though after it was accused of pushing Oxford University to sign an exclusive agreement with AstraZeneca for its vaccine rather than donate the rights to any drugmaker.

Who runs the Foundation?

Bill, 65, and Melinda, 56 are co-chairs of the charity while Warren Buffett is a trustee. The CEO is Mark Suzman.

In its early years, when Bill still ran Microsoft on a daily basis, Melinda was seen as leading the foundation.

In 2008, Bill moved to a part-time role at Microsoft to devote himself to the foundation. Last year, he left his board positions at Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway for the same reason.

It's hard to say which, if either of them, is more influential.

In her 2019 memoir, "The Moment of Lift", Melinda wrote that they argued over who would write the foundation's annual letter, which Bill had typically done.

"I thought we were going to kill each other," she said. They have been writing it jointly since 2014.

Where does the money come from?

The Gates transferred some $20 billion in Microsoft stock to the foundation in its early days.

In 2006, Buffett announced that he would donate the bulk of his fortune to the foundation in the form of shares in his company Berkshire Hathaway.

Four years later, Gates and Buffet launched the Giving Pledge initiative, which encouraged the rich to donate at least 50 percent of their wealth to charitable causes, including the Gates Foundation.

More than 200 prominent people have made the pledge to date.

The foundation has an endowment of more than $46 billion.

At the end of last year, it had a vast portfolio of stocks, dominated by Berkshire Hathaway and also including Walmart, Caterpillar, US company Waste Management and the Canadian National Railway Company, according to Investopedia.

Does divorce threaten the foundation?

Bill, the fourth richest man in the world with a fortune valued by Forbes at $130 billion, and Melinda have pledged to continue working together for the foundation.

But their divorce could create new questions about their wealth, most of which has yet to be donated to the foundation, despite co-creating the Giving Pledge.

The future of the Gates Foundation could depend on the financial terms of the divorce, which is still unknown.

Melinda might want to follow the example of MacKenzie Scott, who quickly gave away an estimated $6 billion after she divorced from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2019 and is now a powerful independent philanthropist in her own right.

Bill and Melinda Gates

Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have announced they are divorcing after 27 years of marriage, raising questions over how they will split their fortune and the direction of one of the world's most powerful charity organizations.

The couple, with a joint fortune estimated at $130 billion, have channeled billions into charitable work around the globe via their hugely influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

They said they would continue their joint work on the foundation, which funds programs in global health, gender equality, education, and other causes.

"After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage," they said in a joint statement, posted on each of their official Twitter accounts on Monday.

"Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives," they wrote.

"We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives."

The statement offered no additional details on the split but said: "We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life."

The announcement comes two years after the divorce of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, another of the world's wealthiest people, and his wife MacKenzie.

Met at Microsoft

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, 65, was a geeky teenager when he started what would become the world's most valuable company, and was for a time the world's richest man and a most prominent philanthropist.

He stepped down as Microsoft chief executive in 2008 to devote more time to philanthropy and later left the board, keeping only the title of "founder and technology advisor."

Melinda Gates, 56, met Bill at Microsoft in 1987, shortly after she joined the tech firm, and the pair married in 1994.

In a 2019 Netflix documentary series, he described his wife as "truly an equal partner," while she looked back on some of their first interactions to call him "funny and very high-energy."

Their foundation is among the world's richest, having provided more than $54 billion in grants over two decades in areas including malaria and infectious disease control, agricultural research, basic health care, and sanitation in various parts of the world.

It has an endowment of more than $46 billion.

The couple's divorce could create new questions about their wealth, most of which has yet to be donated to their foundation, despite co-creating the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give the majority of their wealth to charity.

"The divorce of the most important and consequential couple in philanthropy raises all kinds of questions about the future of @gatesfoundation, and even the future of philanthropy," political scientist Rob Reich said on Twitter.

The Stanford University professor said he hoped the foundation would in the near future issue a statement on the implications of the divorce.

In recent years, Bill Gates has largely distanced himself from Microsoft and the tech industry, instead of speaking about poverty and health initiatives, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the foundation pledged some $250 million to help fight the pandemic, with some of the funds channeled to the distribution of life-saving doses of Covid-19 vaccines to parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Gates, who had been warning as early as 2015 about the potential dangers of a global pandemic, became the target of conspiracy theorists who claimed he knew in advance about Covid-19.

The split comes following the high-profile divorce of Bezos, whose ex-wife took the name MacKenzie Scott and promptly began giving away billions to various causes without setting up a conventional foundation.

A duo undone

From muddy streets in South Africa's townships to cocktail parties at Davos -- Bill and Melinda Gates came as a pair.

Together, they built a charitable empire through Bill's technology company Microsoft and the massive non-profit they co-founded and co-chair, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

And when it came time to announce Monday the end of their 27-year marriage, they did that as a pair too in a joint statement posted to their respective Twitter accounts at exactly the same moment.

Gates, 65, summed it up like this in a 2019 Netflix documentary series: "In the case of Melinda, it is truly an equal partner."

"She's a lot like me in that she is optimistic and she is interested in science. She is better with people than I am. She's a tiny bit less hardcore about knowing, you know, immunology than I am."

Not 'spontaneous enough'

Born October 28, 1955, William H. Gates grew up in Seattle and fell in love with machines and computer programming as a geeky-looking 13-year-old. He left Harvard University after two years to start "Micro-soft," a software company, with a childhood friend.

On the other side of the country, Melinda Gates was born Melinda French on August 15, 1964, in Dallas, Texas. The first computer she ever used was an Apple II, and she developed an interest in computer games and programming at school.

The couple met in 1987, shortly after Melinda started working at Microsoft as a product manager, her first job after graduating from Duke University.

The pair ended up sitting next to each other at a business dinner and hit it off. Melinda, now 56, described her future husband in the Netflix documentary as "funny and very high-energy."

But Bill didn't ask her out until a few months later when they bumped into each other in the Microsoft parking lot. He asked her on a date -- in two weeks.

Melinda teased him for not being "spontaneous enough" and told him to call her closer to the date. A few hours later, he called her at home and asked her out for that night.

They married in 1994 and had three children. Before he popped the question, Melinda says she caught Bill weighing the decision by writing out the pros and cons of marriage on a whiteboard.

The couple would go on to revolutionize the technology world: Bill through Microsoft software, Melinda through helping carve out space for women in the male-dominated industry.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

They launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000.

Their foundation is among the world's richest, having provided more than $54 billion in grants over two decades in areas including malaria and infectious disease control, agricultural research, basic health care, and sanitation, in various parts of the world.

The couple's divorce could create new questions about their wealth, most of which has yet to be donated to their foundation.

Bill transitioned away from Microsoft in 2006 to focus more on philanthropy. In 2010, he and Melinda, along with Warren Buffett, created the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give the majority of their wealth to charity.

Initially, Bill wrote the foundation's annual newsletter, but Melinda asked co-author it in 2013. Although they argued about the idea -- to the point that Melinda said in her 2019 memoir she thought their marriage would end because of it -- they ultimately compromised.

The 2013 letter included just a section by Melinda. They co-authored the letter the next year, but Bill wrote most of it. By 2015, it was a true joint venture.

Even after their divorce elements of that partnership may remain.

"We continue to share a belief in (our) mission and will continue our work together at the foundation," their statement said. "But we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives."

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