Bill and Melinda Gates divorce could shake up philanthropy

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2019, file photo, Bill and Melinda Gates smile at each other during an interview in Kirkland, Wash. The couple announced Monday, May 3, 2021, that they are divorcing. The Microsoft co-founder and his wife, with whom he launched the world's largest charitable foundation, said they would continue to work together at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2019, file photo, Bill and Melinda Gates smile at each other during an interview in Kirkland, Wash. The couple announced Monday, May 3, 2021, that they are divorcing. The Microsoft co-founder and his wife, with whom he launched the world's largest charitable foundation, said they would continue to work together at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

As much as Bill and Melinda Gates might want to keep their pending divorce private, the split between the billionaire co-founders of the world’s largest private foundation is sure to have very public consequences, with the breakup having already sent a wave of anxious uncertainty through the worlds of philanthropy and community health.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of nearly $50 billion, donates about $5 billion annually to causes around the world. Last year, it donated $1 billion to combat COVID-19 through the administering of vaccines.

In a statement after the Gateses’ announced their divorce on Twitter, the foundation said the two would remain co-chairs and trustees and that no changes in the organization were 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.

Despite such assurances, some say they worry that the split could shake up the foundation’s plans. According to a filing in King County Superior Court Monday, the Gateses had no prenuptial agreement but have signed a separation contract.

The couple pledged in 2010 to donate the vast bulk of their fortune — estimated by Forbes at around $133 billion — to the foundation . Divorce attorneys say the committed money would no longer be considered marital property. Yet it remains unclear how the divorce might affect future donations to the foundation.

“There’s no precedent for this, for what the Gateses represent both in their wealth and their status,” said Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy and a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. “Even more importantly, this reflects this new era that we're in which these engaged living donors really dominate the landscape in a way they haven’t for a century.”

Through their philanthropic efforts, the Gateses reshaped attitudes about the obligation of the uber-wealthy to leverage their vast fortunes for the public good in enduring ways. Years ago, they created the Giving Pledge, along with Warren Buffett, to persuade their fellow multi-billionaires to commit to give away the majority of their wealth.