Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans massive giving expansion

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is planning a massive expansion of its annual giving as the world’s largest private philanthropic organisation overhauls its governance in the wake of its co-chairs’ divorce.

The foundation had been distributing about $5bn a year before the pandemic hit, but boosted this to $6.7bn last year as it spent heavily on Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Mark Suzman, its chief executive, told the Financial Times that it had decided to maintain this elevated level of grantmaking because the pandemic had dealt a historic setback to other anti-poverty and development efforts around the world.

The “step change” in spending will be overseen by an expanded board, with Suzman and three outside trustees joining Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates seven months after Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and donor, resigned as the only other trustee.

The divorce of two of the highest-profile figures in global philanthropy had been “a shock” to the foundation, Suzman said, but they had kept working together “very efficiently” despite “not having the same interaction at home”.

Even so, he added, “having a board once Warren had chosen to step down that has two people who are a divorced couple is probably not good governance, even if they are working well together”.

The new board will include Strive Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean billionaire and vaccine envoy for the African Union, Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, and Tom Tierney, co-founder of The Bridgespan Group, a consultant to some of the world’s biggest philanthropists.

Suzman said the new trustees would bring expertise in the private sector, international development and philanthropy. The board could add three more members, he said, and would oversee the foundation’s budgets, plans and leadership. No resolution could pass without the support of a majority of the board as well as both Bill and Melinda.

The two co-chairs contributed a further $15bn to the $50bn endowment soon after announcing their divorce, giving it the resources to step up its grantmaking at a time when it saw urgent need to address setbacks in most of the areas it focuses on.

“The pandemic has slowed, halted, and even reversed hard-won gains in global health and development,” Suzman said in an annual letter. “After nearly two decades of unprecedented progress, we have seen tens of millions of people thrown back into poverty, childhood vaccination rates drop, and diseases from malaria to tuberculosis resurge.”

The Gates’ divorce has prompted a period of reflection for the foundation, at a moment of intense debate about the role of billionaire philanthropists and how they can give most effectively.

MacKenzie Scott, whose divorce settlement was valued at more than $35bn when she split from Jeff Bezos in 2019, has rapidly become one of the world’s biggest philanthropists, shaking up the philanthropy world with the scale of her giving, with few strings attached to how recipients spend the money.

Scott’s giving had been a “galvanising” factor for philanthropy, Suzman said, but “it’s not our model”. 

Growing income and wealth inequalities had also brought more scrutiny of the very rich and more scepticism about their motives as philanthropists, Suzman acknowledged, increasing the need for the foundation to hear constructive criticism from independent trustees.

Its co-chairs were open to such feedback and willing to change their minds, he said: “Rather than become more conservative, Bill and Melinda have chosen to fail fast, learn, and improve.”

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