Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates explore changes to foundation

Bill Gates speaks at US Chamber of Global Forum

Bill Gates speaks at US Chamber of Global Forum

Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates are discussing changes to the structure of their foundation to add more governance and independence as the philanthropists’ planned divorce calls into question the direction of one of the world’s largest charities.

The billionaires, who have jointly led the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for about two decades, are discussing adding a board and bringing in outside directors, according to people familiar with the matter. Ms. French Gates has pushed for governance changes in the wake of the divorce filing to ensure the future stability of the foundation, some of the people said.

Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Gates Foundation, said he told employees last week that he is actively discussing with Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates possible steps to "strengthen the long-term sustainability and stability of the foundation given the co-chairs’ divorce."

"No decisions have been made," Mr. Suzman said in a statement. "Bill and Melinda have reaffirmed their commitment to the foundation and continue to work together on behalf of our mission. These discussions are part of their prudent planning for the future."

The Gateses, as co-chairs and trustees, currently oversee the foundation’s work and how it is run, while Mr. Suzman handles the day-to-day operations. Warren Buffett, a major foundation donor, is also a trustee and weighs in on key foundation matters. In addition, Mr. Gates’s father, Bill Gates Sr., who died in September 2020, played a major role as a co-chairman.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gestures next to his wife, Melinda French Gates, during the session “Sustainable Development: A Vision for the Future” in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos Jan. 23, 2015. (REUTERS/Rube

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Mr. Gates, 65 years old, and Ms. French Gates, 56, said earlier this month they were ending their marriage after 27 years. In a joint statement posted on Twitter, the couple said, "We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives." In a divorce petition, Ms. French Gates said their marriage was "irretrievably broken."

Following the announcement of their divorce, a Gates Foundation spokeswoman said the couple would remain co-chairs and trustees of the foundation and would work jointly to shape and approve its strategies and overall direction.

Gates Foundation leaders are seeking ways to protect the organization’s reputation and work since the couple disclosed that they planned to divorce, the people said. There have been recent calls from some Gates Foundation grant recipients asking questions about Mr. Gates’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the people said. Mr. Gates met with Mr. Epstein for philanthropy and regrets doing so, a spokeswoman has said.

The Gates Foundation had a $49.9 billion endowment in 2020. The high-profile couple gave $36.8 billion to the organization between 1994 and 2020, according to the foundation. It invests money in more than two dozen different areas, including polio eradication, infectious diseases, gender equality, U.S. education and agriculture development.

The size of the foundation’s future endowment will depend on donations from Mr. Gates, Ms. French Gates and Mr. Buffett, who has contributed since 2006 and pledged to leave the foundation most of his fortune. Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates have pledged to give most of their fortune to charity before they die or in their wills.

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Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates also invest outside of the foundation in social causes, through companies that they run individually.

Ms. French Gates, through her company Pivotal Ventures, focuses on advancing issues affecting women and families in the U.S., including paid-leave policies, and getting more women in technology and to run for public office. Ms. French Gates said in 2019 she would commit $1 billion over a 10-year period through Pivotal to promote gender equality.

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Mr. Gates has championed eradication of polio and malaria at the Gates Foundation. The Microsoft Corp. co-founder has also invested in clean energy and other technologies to address climate change, as well as issues including Alzheimer’s research through his company Gates Ventures and other investment vehicles.

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