Charity experts: No changes expected at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation after divorce

Craig Harris, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Several philanthropic experts said Tuesday that the recently announced divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates likely will have no short-term effect on the world-renowned, Seattle-based foundation that bears their names.

The couple, who co-chair the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced their divorce on Twitter on Monday, after 27 years of marriage. The two said they would continue to work together at the foundation, which has given away more than $54 billion and raised $5.8 billion in 2019 alone, according to the organization's publicly available tax returns.

"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," the foundation said in a statement.

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However, it's possible the foundation, founded in 1994, could spin off another charity if the divorce is not amicable, according to some charity experts. They also say the charity is in no danger of having trouble raising money as Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, was once the richest person in the world and one of the foundation's key contributors is fellow billionaire Warren Buffett.

The Warren Buffett of it all

"Everyone has been focused on the couple, which is understandable," said James Ferris, a professor and director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "But the one thing that has been missing is that Warren Buffett is a trustee of the foundation. … He made a commitment to make an annual contribution that could be spent that year."

In 2019, the most recent foundation records available, Buffett donated $2.7 billion in stock or nearly 47% of all contributions made that year. Buffett since 2006 has given the foundation more than $27 billion, according to the organization.

Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., center, and his wife Melinda, left, walk on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Dec. 5, 2005. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds health programs for the poor in Bangladesh. Woman at right is unidentified.
Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., center, and his wife Melinda, left, walk on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Dec. 5, 2005. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds health programs for the poor in Bangladesh. Woman at right is unidentified.

A call to Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, where Buffett is chief executive, was not returned.

The foundation has focused on gender equality and global development and health. It funded grantees in 48 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 135 countries in 2019, and it has more than 1,600 employees.

Martha H. Voegeli, a senior consultant for Marts & Lundy, said she too expects no immediate changes at the foundation.

Voegeli said the Gates Foundation in no way resembles charitable giving by a couple who may divorce, even if their giving was substantial to a nonprofit organization or college. In that situation, the giving could decrease if one of the spouses didn't support the philanthropic mission of the charity.

But, she said Bill and Melinda Gates appear to have shared values. And, she noted a large part of the funding comes from Buffett.

"This is a professional foundation with well-articulated goals and a very clear objective of helping people all over the world," said Voegeli, whose New Jersey-based company provides philanthropic consulting.

A spin-off charity is not unheard of

Peter Frumkin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research specializes in philanthropy, said in the long run there is a chance the direction of the Gates Foundation could change, resulting in a spinoff if there are problems with the divorce.

Frumkin said there have been foundations run by siblings who could not get along and their charity broke into several entities.

In Seattle, one university's vice president in charge of fundraising said those who have been helped by the Gates Foundation have nothing to worry about.

"The only thing Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant recipients should be concerned about is ROI (return on investment) on the philanthropic investment," said Louise Furrow of Seattle Pacific University. "They said they were going to keep working at the foundation. ... Why wouldn't that continue?"

Have a tip on business or investigative stories? Reach the reporter at craig.harris@usatoday.com or 602-509-3613 or on Twitter @CraigHarrisUSAT

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bill, Melinda Gates divorce shouldn't cause problems at the Foundation