As the power couple of giving splits, Melinda French Gates’ global influence in philanthropy could grow even further, reflecting her own values and interests.
She has long shared the spotlight with her husband, Bill Gates. But the Gateses on Monday announced they were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. In simultaneous and identical tweets, they pledged to continue to run the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose mission is to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.
At the Gates Foundation, French Gates, who now prefers to be referred to by her maiden name, has frequently spearheaded efforts focused on women’s empowerment, an area where some philanthropy experts say she could expand her giving. Women’s issues have always been a part of the foundation’s giving, although it is best known for its initiatives to address global health and, more recently, to end the coronavirus pandemic.
Bill Gates has long cast the largest shadow at the foundation. He cemented his fortune, which Forbes pegs at $130.4 billion, by co-founding the software giant Microsoft. When Gates directed his focus to philanthropy two decades ago, he also seized attention, wielding outsize influence in the areas where the foundation gives due to the enormity of his wealth.
French Gates has had to address the idea of living in her husband’s shadow for years. In a 2006 interview with The Wall Street Journal, as French Gates began to take a more public role at the foundation, she acknowledged that the public erroneously “thought the foundation was really Bill.”
But French Gates has hardly been a wallflower. She spoke before the U.N. General Assembly in 2010 about reducing poverty and halting the spread of HIV, gave a TED talk in 2012 about providing global access to birth control, and in 2019 wrote a book, “The Moment of Lift,” about empowering women to help alleviate global suffering.
Two years ago, in an interview with The Washington Post, French Gates talked about how meeting child brides and victims of abuse motivated her giving.
“I have to let my heart break. Because it’s what ends up fueling the work,” French Gates said at the time.
Representatives for French Gates and Gates declined to make either available for comment. In a statement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said it expects its operations to remain unchanged.
“Bill and Melinda will remain co-chairs and trustees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the foundation said in a statement. “No changes to their roles or the organization are planned. They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction.”
When their divorce is finalized, French Gates seems likely to emerge with her own fortune, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. And she will have the ability to direct those funds toward causes to which she might not have otherwise given.
“She might have some areas she wants to pursue separately. She’ll have that opportunity,” said Jim Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California.
One possible area of giving: the focus of her book.
“The work the foundation has been doing on women’s empowerment is her thing,” Ferris said.
She recently pressed the Biden administration to push to make child care and long-term care more affordable because of the unfair burden that often falls to women to take on those tasks and sacrifice their own careers.
“Now, with child-care centers closed, schools operating remotely and families caring for sick adults and aging parents at home, what was previously untenable has become almost impossible — especially for single mothers, essential workers and others working low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours,” French Gates wrote in a December op-ed in the Post.
Altering the priorities at a giant and well-established philanthropy seems unlikely, said Peter Frumkin, professor of social policy and practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy.”
“It is very hard to change directions quickly when you have a huge institution with multiyear commitments outstanding around the world,” Frumkin said.
Tom Vander Ark, who ran the Gates Foundation’s education-giving efforts from 1999 to 2006, called French Gates “a fast study but also very empathic with people.” She wasn’t initially involved in strategy but became engaged quickly.
“Her first action was to request a visit of some of the toughest conditions in the country,” Vander Ark said via email. They visited a tough Oakland, California, school, “much to the chagrin of her security detail,” Vander Ark recalled.
While Gates excels at consuming and synthesizing data, French Gates builds relationships with ease. “They had complementary views and talents,” Vander Ark said.
One window into French Gates’ priorities may be Pivotal Ventures. She set up the investment arm in 2015 to invest in and incubate companies that focus on a handful of issues dear to her, including paid leave and caregiving innovation, addressing racial equity as a barrier for women in the United States and getting more women to run for public office.
“What you are seeing is an increased focus on women and girls, particularly women and girls of color,” said Megan Francis, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
Last June, Pivotal Ventures launched the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, a competition seeded initially with $30 million to fund ideas to help expand women’s power and influence in the United States.
MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of another Seattle billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, contributed to the initiative. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Scott’s divorce settlement two years ago set a record, giving her an Amazon stake worth approximately $36 billion at the time. And her fortune has soared, along with Amazon’s stock, since then, climbing to $58.5 billion, according to Forbes. Scott has quickly moved to donate massive chunks of her wealth, giving nearly $6 billion last year to schools and organizations that are committed to racial and gender equity and that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott’s approach differs from the Gates Foundation, which often talks about the catalytic effect of its philanthropy, funding that triggers additional funding from governments or other charitable groups. That has sometimes led to criticism over the Gateses’ outsize influence in giving.
Scott’s gifts, though, have come with no strings attached, an approach that Francis says French Gates might also follow.
“There is such an opportunity for her to rewrite the playbook,” Francis said.