FocusFantastic/shutterstock
FocusFantastic/shutterstock

Another week, another blockbuster announcement from the world’s largest foundation.

In a letter to staff made public Wednesday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation President Mark Suzman announced two major leadership changes: the institution will add more trustees, and Melinda could leave the foundation if either she or Bill decides co-parenting their foundation is not working.

“If, after two years, either one of them decides that they cannot continue to work together, Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee,” wrote Suzman, though he emphasized the divorcing couple expect to “remain long-term partners and co-chairs” in the care of the institution they call their “fourth child.”

The letter also shared that the pair, whose May divorce announcement sent ripples through philanthropy, have committed another $15 billion to the foundation’s endowment, bringing the total to roughly $65 billion.

Like the resignation of family friend and foundation donor Warren Buffett from the Seattle-based grantmaker’s board of trustees last month, leaving Bill and Melinda as the sole trustees, this latest announcement adds to the volatility and uncertainty at the world’s largest foundation. And like that announcement, it raises new questions about what’s next for a grantmaker that has had a major hand in global health policy, among other arenas, for the past couple decades.

We’re reaching out to the foundation to try and learn more about where this battleship is headed. In the meantime, as always, we have questions.

What can we expect from the new trustees?

From Suzman’s note, we know when the new trustees will be announced: January 2022. We also know the people tasked with outlining their role and naming candidates: Suzman; Connie Collingsworth, the foundation’s chief operating officer; and the other 10 members of the foundation’s executive leadership team.

But there are so many other questions. How many trustees will be added? Are family members—like the Gateses’ three adult children—part of the plan? What qualities are they looking to add? Will the new trustees’ terms exceed the two-year trial period?

Rob Reich, Stanford political science professor and the author of a critique of philanthropy titled “Just Giving,” noted in a Twitter thread that the couple had pledged to spend down the foundation’s assets within 20 years after the deaths of the former couple. “Will this commitment change with the new trustees?” he wrote.

Those questions and others may have yet to be resolved. “Over the next several months, we will work with both internal and external experts to develop [detailed recommendations] in consultation with Bill and Melinda,” wrote Suzman.

But there is a hint that new faces are part of the plan, as urged recently by a pair of former staffers in an opinion piece titled “How to Fix the Gates Foundation.” “The new trustees will bring fresh perspectives, insight, and expertise to help guide the foundation and act as an additional resource to the Executive Leadership Team (ELT),” they wrote.

While joining a foundation amid the divorce of its founders and namesakes sounds awkward at best, the chance to direct a $5 billion-plus torrent of grants will undoubtedly attract innumerable interested candidates. Which adds one more question to the list: Will we learn anything more about the process before they are announced?

Who is most empowered by this new contingency plan?

Bill appears to hold the raw power under this new trial period. He can force Melinda to leave the foundation, regardless of what she wants, while remaining a trustee. She can only choose to leave.

The terms of this arrangement—a former husband being able to force his ex-wife from an institution named for them both—seem like a patriarchal artifact of another century. Yet it is also, absent evidence to the contrary, one that French Gates agreed to.

Even with that power, it remains to be seen if the Microsoft co-founder would risk further fallout by exercising it, following a summer of post-divorce revelations about infidelities, visits with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and other questionable conduct. On the other hand, it could offer French Gates a clean exit from a muddied situation.

“The assumption is that this gives Bill enormous power. It clearly does. But given that I think [in] a split, Bill would likely bear much of the reputational costs of the split (no matter who instigates it), it’s possible this gives Melinda considerable power, as well,” wrote Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute, on Twitter.

The terms of the buy-out comprise the other major factor, which could launch another massive philanthropic project in which French Gates is calling all the shots. Suzman’s note said that in the event of her resignation, “Melinda would receive personal resources from Bill for her philanthropic work. These resources would be completely separate from the foundation’s endowment, which would not be affected.”

The phrasing leaves thorny questions about whether those funds would come from Bill’s post-divorce share of their riches or out of joint resources. But one more immediate uncertainty stands out: how much? The Gateses’ fortune is estimated by Forbes at $124 billion. In theory, there’s more than enough to provide for a foundation just as strapping as their current “fourth child.”

If those were the terms of this new contingency plan, the possibility of resigning may prove attractive in the face of any divorce-aggravated disagreements. French Gates would no longer jointly command the foundation’s globe-spanning, 1,700-plus staff members, but MacKenzie Scott has presented $8.5 billion in proof that such a force is not a requirement for mega-philanthropy.

Should we expect more surprises?

As the Bloomberg business writer Sophie Alexander observed, when Bill and Melinda announced their divorce in May, the message from Seattle was that not much would change at the foundation.

Yet, last month, Buffet resigned as trustee, and now the foundation has revealed it is adding new trustees, Melinda may exit, and the foundation’s assets are now 30% larger. Change has been the only constant.

Another illustration of this reality: Even between the time this article was drafted and it went through editing, the foundation’s announcement switched from using the founders’ first names to employing “Gates” and “French Gates” to refer to them.

Granted, Suzman promised July updates on the foundation’s governance in his statement on Buffet’s departure. And now, he’s pledged an announcement in January. But given what’s happened already this summer, it seems unlikely we’ll go that long without a fresh round of surprises.

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