The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of nearly $50 billion, donates some $5 billion annually to global causes. The foundation says it has spent $54.8 billion since 2000 on malaria, polio, ebola and other programmes.

Philanthropists Bill Gates (R) and Melinda Gates (L) prior to being awarded Commanders of the Legion of Honor at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 21, 2017.
Philanthropists Bill Gates (R) and Melinda Gates (L) prior to being awarded Commanders of the Legion of Honor at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 21, 2017. (Reuters)

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.

In a statement after the Gateses announced their divorce on Twitter on Monday, the foundation said the two would remain co-chairs and trustees and that no changes in the organisation were planned.

“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 foundation said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of nearly $50 billion, donates about $5 billion annually to causes around the world. 

Last year, it donated $1 billion to combat Covid-19 through administering vaccines. It was also key in forming Covax, a global program to help supply vaccines to the poorest countries.

Despite such assurances, some say they worry that the split could shake up the foundation’s plans. 

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Giving pledge

In 2000, the 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.

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

Through their philanthropic efforts, the Gateses reshaped attitudes about the obligation of the uber-wealthy to leverage their vast fortunes for the public good in enduring ways. 

Years ago, they created the Giving Pledge, along with Warren Buffett, to persuade their fellow multi-billionaires to commit to give away the majority of their wealth.

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

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Fortune donation

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

According to a filing in King County Superior Court on Monday, the Gateses had no prenuptial agreement but have signed a separation contract.

The couple pledged in 2010 to donate the vast bulk of their fortune — estimated by Forbes at around $133 billion — to the foundation.

Divorce attorneys say the committed money would no longer be considered marital property. 

“There’s no precedent for this, for what the Gateses represent both in their wealth and their status,” said Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy and a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. 

“Even more importantly, this reflects this new era that we're in which these engaged living donors really dominate the landscape in a way they haven’t for a century.”

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Volatility of private giving

Linsey McGoey, author of “No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy,” suggested that the philanthropy world is most likely concerned about the divorce in part because past such marital breakups have sometimes caused disruptive changes at foundations.

When the British hedge fund billionaire Chris Hohn and his wife, Jamie Cooper, divorced in 2013, it resulted in management problems at their charity, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. 

“People do fear that when a divorce like this happens, it can really emphasise the volatility surrounding private giving and the fact that private giving is so contingent on the whims of a couple,” McGoey said. 

“The fact that we don’t really know the long term ramifications of this divorce on the foundation just highlights the fact that we are too reliant as a society on the whims of wealthy people when it comes to voluntarily distributing their excess wealth.”

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'Decoupled already'

Because the foundation has been a long-established entity with a large professional staff, experts say any changes that might happen because of the divorce would likely be incremental and happen over an extended period.

Though questions have circulated about how the divorce might affect the couple’s pledge to donate a majority of their wealth to the foundation, Susan Moss, a New York-based divorce attorney who has worked with high net-worth clients, says that shouldn’t be a concern.

“Both spouses need to know about it, both spouses need to agree and the commitment needs to have happened prior, and not on the heels of the divorce,” Moss said. “All three prongs have been met in this case.”

At the same time, some experts note that for years the Gateses have each pursued their own interests within the foundation as well as their own separate investment funds. 

Since 2008, Bill Gates has had Gates Ventures. And, in 2015, Melinda Gates founded Pivotal Ventures, which focuses on helping women and families in the United States.

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

“In a sense, they’ve decoupled already,” Soskis said. “They have emerged as two distinct individuals with distinct approaches and focus areas already. And in some sense that might make the divorce easier in an institutional setting because they already have the distinct lines.”

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies