Continuity and Change at the Gates Foundation

Following several past blogs on governance changes at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we’ve noted yet more news over the past few months about the foundation’s board, time frame and grantmaking plans. Given the foundation’s size and the prominent role it continues to play in addressing global health and poverty along with K-12 education in the United States, the ways in which Gates is approaching board composition, sunsetting and significantly increased grantmaking may hold valuable lessons for other donors.

In August, the foundation announced two new independent trustees had joined its board. The appointments of Helene Gayle, president of Spelman College, and Ashish Dhawan, founder and CEO of the Convergence Foundation in India, follow the naming of three other outside board members in January of this year along with Mark Suzman, Gates Foundation CEO. The Gates Foundation board, which for many years included only Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates plus one other “insider” (Bill Gates Sr. followed by foundation donor Warren Buffet) now numbers eight people, five of whom are considered independent. With its latest members, the foundation board increased its internal knowledge and experience in health and global development.

Plans to sunset the foundation

The second announcement was reported by Forbes on September 23 with Bill Gates announcing at the Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit that the foundation would close its doors in 25 years. The core goal for the foundation over that time, he explained, was to “try and bring infectious disease, or all of the diseases that make the world inequitable, to bring those largely to an end, either through eradication or getting them down to very low levels.” Noting that he would follow his recent $20 billion donation to the foundation with additional extremely large gifts, the implication was clear: Bill Gates hoped to complete his philanthropic efforts in his own lifetime.

But not so, reported Insider a few weeks later, noting Melinda French Gates had announced at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Conference that — as previously decided — the foundation will last until 20 years after she and Bill Gates die. More important than the contradiction, however, were her additional comments about sunsetting the foundation which are clearly aligned with her ex-husband’s thinking.

“The intention is that the resources that have been amassed from Microsoft have ended up, for whatever reason in both of our hands, that those resources will return to society,” she said. “Both he and I have thought for a long time that we can’t predict the problems 100 years from now. We couldn’t have predicted some of the things that have happened in the last five years.” In a later interview with Bloomberg, French Gates remarked that she and her ex-husband “remain completely committed to this institution and to working effectively together.”

Future grantmaking to include continuity and innovation

In grantmaking at the Gates Foundation, we can expect a mixture of continuity and innovation. As Bill Gates noted, significant and likely increased resources will still be allocated for global health and development, including climate change adaptation and resilience. In September, he revealed the foundation was committing $912 million to help replenish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — a collaboration of Gates with governments and other nonprofits — through 2026. And in October, Bloomberg noted that the foundation would add $1.2 billion to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, bringing the foundation’s total commitment to that effort to $5 billion.

In similar fashion, the foundation’s existing efforts to increase charitable giving — including the Giving Pledge and multiple grants to improve both data collection and public awareness about giving — was just given a remarkable boost with a grant of $10 million to organization GivingTuesday in 2022. Part of that grant, which is just $500,000 shy of the total amount given by Gates to GivingTuesday since its founding in 2012, will support a database of charitable giving and other acts of generosity, as reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

That article also quotes French Gates on the foundation’s reasoning for the gift. “Whether people are giving their voice, their time, their expertise or their money, and given that it was the 10-year anniversary of GivingTuesday, it seemed like the right time to step up with another commitment,” she said.

In North America, K-12 education remains a key focus area for the foundation, along with early learning and post-secondary success. But within that area, the foundation revealed in October that support for math education would increase dramatically to $1.1 billion over the next four years while grants in other subjects, including language arts, would be reduced. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that the foundation’s “increased focus on math comes after the pandemic ‘wreaked havoc’ on learning in secondary schools and widened the gaps based on race in student performance, with math scores among Black students falling more sharply than declines among white students, according to Bob Hughes, director of the Gates Foundation’s elementary and secondary education grant-making program.”

Another cause that has long been important to the foundation is empowering women and families in an effort to address global poverty. As the Gates Foundation website states, “Our Gender Equality Division works to ensure women and girls in Africa and South Asia can enjoy good health, make their own choices, earn their own money and be leaders in their societies.” While this focus has traditionally included family planning and maternal and child health — and will continue to do so — it is now clear that increased investment in this area will more sharply focus on women’s economic empowerment.

Beyond the work of the foundation, French Gates will be committing much of her personal wealth to this effort through Pivotal Ventures, a 501(c)(3) organization she founded in 2015. Most recently, she explained why she is directing $1 billion to increase the economic empowerment of women in the United States by focusing on four sectors: tech, finance, media and politics. “You get more equity in those four industries and you will change all of society,” she remarked in an interview with Fortune.

In the wake of both personal upheaval and frequent public controversy, the Gates Foundation remains committed to acting on the words of its founders: “We wake up every day determined to use our resources to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with their priorities, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates remain among the country’s most influential philanthropists in both their areas of focus and the strategies they employ.

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