It isn’t every day that the world’s largest foundation gets new trustees. The last (and only) time it happened was when Warren Buffett hitched his giving to Bill and Melinda Gates’ in 2006. For the next decade and a half, the triumvirate reigned supreme at the Gates Foundation, which operated as a true colossus in global health and development, washing the Microsoft founder’s mixed reputation squeaky clean along the way.

Then 2021 happened. It was an annus horribilis for the Gates Foundation—as COVID surged, the foundation became a magnet for conspiracy theories, Bill drew criticism for opposing the temporary lifting of vaccine patent protections (the foundation later reversed course), and rumors of Bill’s alleged improprieties and questionable connections swirled.

When Bill and Melinda announced their divorce, CEO Mark Suzman strove to project stability and continuity. But with dark clouds already overhead, it was hard not to speculate about big changes to come.

And come they did, first in the form of Warren Buffett’s departure from the board. It was a surprise, since many of us expected Buffett to remain at the post for the rest of his life. But Buffett’s role at the foundation apparently came with little direct involvement, and he’s a nonagenarian, after all. The biggest question Buffett’s departure raised was how the Gates Foundation’s governance would evolve in his absence.

We got some partial answers as the summer progressed. In a letter to staff, Suzman announced plans to add trustees and made public the founding couple’s curious arrangement regarding Melinda’s role: “If, after two years, either one of them decides that they cannot continue to work together, Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee,” he wrote.

Aside from this sign of Bill’s continued preeminence, details remained murky for the rest of 2021. But as of this morning, we now have a much better idea of how the Gates Foundation’s governance will shape up, and a list—though still incomplete—of who’s on the new board.

Bill, Melinda and Mark

The first few names are easy. Bill’s still in the driver’s seat, and as of right now, so is Melinda. Under their arrangement from last year, Bill and Melinda have until mid-2023 to suss out a working relationship at the foundation, after which we can only assume Melinda will stay on permanently if she does choose to remain.

The third trustee will be Suzman himself. Assigning the chief executive a board role is nothing new for foundations. In fact, it’ll represent a major step toward normalizing the Gates Foundation’s idiosyncratic governance structure. It’s also a sign of Bill and Melinda’s continued faith in Suzman’s ability to steer this ponderous vessel into its next era, where it’ll find itself embattled in the court of public opinion—far more than in those halcyon days over a decade ago when Suzman joined the team.

Now, the interesting part. There are three new board members from outside the organization, and plans to continue growing the board to a possible total of nine people. According to the foundation, trustees will serve three-year terms and be limited to two consecutive terms. So who are these lucky luminaries?

The billionaire: Strive Masiyiwa

That’s right: On the heels of Buffett’s departure, yet another billionaire will hold sway at the Gates Foundation—Strive Masiyiwa, often described as Zimbabwe’s richest man. The 60-year-old businessman founded EcoNet Group, a telecommunications conglomerate with operations across Africa, Europe and Asia, and now based in South Africa. Forbes estimates Masiyiwa’s current net worth at $2.5 billion.

Masiyiwa is an established philanthropist in his own right. He founded the Higher Life Foundation in his home country in 1996, moved to act in part by the impact of HIV/AIDS. Masiyiwa and his wife Tsitsi proceeded to give extensively for education and later expanded into health funding and disaster relief as then-president Robert Mugabe’s domestic policies sparked crisis in Zimbabwe, circa 2008.

A devout Pentecostal Christian and Giving Pledge signatory, Masiyiwa has taken on numerous civil society roles over the last decade. Most prominently—and likely the main reason he got onto Gates’ short-list—Masiyiwa has been working with the African Union since 2014 to mobilize and coordinate epidemic response efforts on the continent, beginning with Ebola and extending through COVID.

He’s shared the stage with Bill Gates multiple times, but he’s also been critical of Global North nations’ continued failure to make COVID vaccines available to the Global South. That criticism extends to the international COVAX effort, which Masiyiwa has characterized as a deliberate failure, despite the fact that both the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation—where Masiyiwa’s also on the board, by the way—have backed the initiative.

The baroness: Nemat Shafik 

It’s the second time in recent years that a member of the U.K.’s House of Lords has been elevated to the top ranks of a major U.S.-based foundation. Nemat Shafik, who also goes by the name Minouche, is a native of Egypt and longtime international development banking leader who has led the London School of Economics since 2017.

Now 59 years old, Shafik studied economics in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She became the World Bank’s youngest-ever vice president at age 36 and later taught at Georgetown University and the Wharton School of Business. Shafik went on to work for the British government’s Department for International Development from 2008 through 2011, and at the International Monetary Fund from 2011 through 2014.

Prior to her current role at LSE, Shafik spent three years as the Bank of England’s deputy governor for markets and banking, where, according to her LSE bio, she was responsible for a balance sheet of 500 billion British pounds. It was also during that period that Shafik was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Shafik’s presence on the board reflects Gates’ continued quasi-governmental prominence in resource allocation for global development, and its probable intention to hold onto that power going forward.

The Bridgespan founder: Tom Tierney

Here’s a name that’ll be familiar to many in U.S. philanthropy circles. Tierney co-founded the Bridgespan Group circa 2000 as a nonprofit spin-off from Bain & Company. Back then, he was a worldwide managing partner for Bain, but the theory was that a management consultancy structured as a nonprofit could do better for nonprofit clients (and philanthropic donors) than your typical for-profit shop.

Fast forward to today, and Bridgespan’s a dominant force, with dozens of employees, a global presence, and revenues approaching $100 million a year. The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker recently remarked to the effect that no nonprofit consulting firm has been more influential over the past 20 years.

Tierney, for his part, has cultivated deep relationships with the Gates Foundation (and a laundry list of other top-level funders), with Bridgespan accepting Gates money along the way. The firm played a role in the promotion of Gates’ and Buffett’s now-ubiquitous Giving Pledge. Around the same time, Tierney also wrote glowingly of Bill Gates in his 2011 book “Give Smart,” comparing him to Andrew Carnegie and calling him “rigorous, disciplined, and deeply strategic.”

Tierney’s elevation to the Gates board is, if nothing else, another major endorsement of Bridgespan after MacKenzie Scott’s well-publicized engagement with the firm to manage much of her grantmaking. It’s also a gesture toward a bright future for the corporate consulting model in philanthropy.

Taming the leviathan

The obvious big question going forward—aside from the even bigger question of whether Melinda French Gates will stay or go—is what the rest of the list will look like.

It’s hard not to remark on the blatantly elite nature of the current list, whose gestures toward diversity still ended up elevating people from the Global South who are nonetheless deeply rooted in the Global North and hold substantial wealth and power. In addition, note that none of these new appointees have actually worked in global health or education as their primary role.

In the foundation’s annual letter, Suzman wrote that “we’re in active conversations about adding to our initial slate to enhance representation across gender, geography, and expertise.” He also hedged: “The fact remains is that a significant proportion of global technical expertise and capacity remains in the Global North and, thus, so does much of our grantmaking.”

It’s always possible one or more of the board members still to be appointed will be responsive to growing critiques of global health work—and of its predominant funder—as ripe for “decolonization.” But that’s unlikely.

What’s more likely, given these initial choices, is that the foundation will structure its board around an attitude of faith in status-quo global institutions—and in a status-quo way of doing the business of good. Bill Gates himself recently went to bat against declining popular faith in institutions, referring mostly to faith in governments. But in a way, the Gates Foundation is a nation unto itself, and has certainly been an arm of American (and western, and Global North) soft power.

With trust in the global institution that is the Gates Foundation on the wane, it may have no choice but to play defense. That raises additional questions, like, is this all for show? And how, if at all, will Gates grantmaking change as a result of this?

Sure, having a board full of power players makes it more likely they’ll challenge Bill and Melinda when regular employees wouldn’t. Suzman—who himself appeared to successfully push against Bill’s opposition to lifting vaccine patent protections last year—hailed the founding couple’s “willingness to change their minds.” But even for the good of the foundation, would a board full of power players ever challenge Bill and Melinda in ways that cut against their own privilege?

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