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Why Melinda French Gates going her own philanthropic way matters

The former wife of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has announced that she no longer plans to give away the bulk of her wealth via their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here's why a clean break makes sense.
Melinda French Gates

Following on from her divorce from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 2021, Melinda French Gates has announced that she no longer plans to give away the bulk of her wealth via their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Launched in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was set up to enhance healthcare, reduce extreme global poverty and to expand educational opportunities in the United States. In 2020, it was reported to be the second largest charitable foundation in the world, holding $49.8 billion in assets

As of 2018, they had donated around $36 billion to the foundation but now French Gates will no longer be donating the majority of her wealth through the philanthropic organisation.

Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates

“When Melinda French Gates joined then husband Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in launching [billionaire-targeting philanthropic campaign] The Giving Pledge, she spoke of the concentration of too much wealth in the hands of one individual and the importance of using this wealth for good,” says Tayyab Mohamed [pictured right], co-founder of Agreus Group and president of Agreus USA.

“While her platform for making impact might have changed from the Gates Foundation to her own foundation Pivotal Ventures [an investment company helping to advance women and family issues across the US] since her divorce, her objective remains the same – pledging $1 billion over ten years to fight pivotal issues within America, such as national paid leave, young people’s mental health and gender equality.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that French Gates still plans to distribute much of her fortune across philanthropic endeavours but now entirely on her own terms.

“The ultimate goal of any philanthropist should be to render the need for philanthropy obsolete,” French Gates wrote in an open letter. “It’s important to acknowledge that giving away money your family will never need is not an especially noble act. There’s no question in my mind that the real standard for generosity is set by the people who give even when it means going without.

“That’s why, as part of this pledge, I commit to doing more than writing checks. I also commit my time, energy, and efforts to the work of fighting poverty and advancing equality – for women and girls and other marginalized groups – in the United States and around the world.”

Headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“She is a billionaire in her own right and is continuing to make an impact,” continues Mohamed. “The only difference is that she is no longer doing this under her former husband’s name – a logical next step for a newly single and powerful individual. Taking the divorce out of the conversation, however, and given the recent revelations regarding the family office managing the investments of Bill Gates, it seems like this is a very wise move on Melinda French Gates’ part to start afresh and make a tremendous social impact.”

Following the announcement of their divorce in July 2021, the foundation agreed on a back-up plan in the event that its co-chairs cannot work together. The deal gives a two-year trial, after which French Gates could resign from the organization as well as receiving personal resources from her ex-husband for her own charity work.

In French Gates’ letter, she reiterated her commitment to giving away the vast majority of her wealth. “I think philanthropy is most effective when it prioritizes flexibility over ideology – and why in my work at the foundation and Pivotal Ventures I’ll continue to seek out new partners, ideas, and perspectives,” she wrote.

Melinda Gates

In a separate letter published by Gates, the Microsoft co-founder emphasized his philanthropic commitments to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “The foundation is my top philanthropic priority, even as my giving in other areas has grown over the years,” he said.

“While the move is unquestionable, what will be interesting is to see how she chooses to structure her family foundation,” says Mohamed. “We find that family offices, typically in America, operate with a flat structure and a team of less than five. With $1 billion in investments or donations being made over the next decade and assets of more than $6 billion under management, I certainly anticipate a more formal structure with a key focus on talent and cultural fit - the process of screening potential candidates to determine if they fit in with the culture of the family office.

“Overall, I think this is a great thing and one that can only make more impact to more individuals, those inside and outside of the Family Office community.”

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