Gates Foundation Strengthens Its Board with New Members

Less than a year after the Gates Foundation announced it was considering enlarging its board of three (Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and Warren Buffet), the names of the new board members have been made public. They are:

  • Strive Masiyiwa, CEO of Econet Global, a telecommunications company focused on Sub-Saharan Africa and a Giving Pledge signer;
  • Baroness Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, economist and director of the London School of Economics;
  • Thomas Tierney, former CEO of Bain & Company and co-founder and co-chair of the Bridgespan Group, which provides management consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists; and
  • Mark Suzman, Gates Foundation CEO, who first joined the foundation in 2007 as director of Global Development Policy, Advocacy and Special Initiatives.

Masiyiwa, Shafik and Tierney will be the first independent directors (i.e., neither donors nor officers of the foundation) on this board, and their appointment will strengthen the foundation’s governance and operations. Melinda French Gates issued a statement confirming the “new board members share the values that have guided us for the past 20 years, and they possess the vision needed to drive the work that lies ahead.” In the foundation’s 2022 annual letter, CEO Suzman echoed that sentiment, noting, “I have had the privilege of working with each of [the trustees] in different capacities over the years and know they will bring integrity and insight to our shared mission of creating a world where every person has the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

The thoughtful additions to the foundation’s board have nonetheless been met with a slew of negative attention from the philanthropic community. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Alex Daniels described the news this way: “In addition to naming Suzman to the board, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have added a philanthropy insider, a billionaire, and a baroness to the board that oversees the global philanthropy giant, now worth well over $50 billion.” I anticipated a swarm of protest at that, and particularly at the description of Shafik — an Egyptian by birth whose career includes work at the World Bank, the UK’s Department of Economic Development, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and now LSE — by merely her honorific title. I was wrong.

More complaints followed from those crusading for radical change at the Gates Foundation who were horribly disappointed by the board member selections, even with the appointment of two persons of color. From across the pond, Linsey McGoey, University of Essex professor and philanthropy critic, tweeted “As if it makes an iota of difference to its operations … the Gates Foundation is not even trying to take seriously the need for different perspectives.” New York City public school reformer Leonie Haimson complained that of the new board members, “Not one of them has expertise in either public health or education.”

A more perceptive and even-handed analysis of the new board appointments came from Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and co-editor of In an article published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Soskis argued that changes at the Gates Foundation stemmed from an awareness that some response to continued external criticism of the organization was necessary. He noted CEO Suzman’s comments that its expanded governance demonstrated its leadership was “actively seeking out and being open to constructive criticism from diverse voices.” But Soskis remained wary of how the foundation will define “constructive.” The newest board members, he remarked, “might technically represent some dilution of the Gates’s power, but the backgrounds of the new members do not portend a full-scale assault on that power or how it has been wielded in the past.”

In fact, the foundation’s published bylaws make clear that Masiyiwa, Shafik and Tierney will serve a maximum of two three-year terms, while board leadership will continue in the hands of Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates. The bylaws also clearly delineate those matters in which the board has voting authority (e.g., approval of the budget and four-year plan; appointment, termination and review of the CEO) and those areas where the board has advisory responsibilities (e.g., strategy development; evaluation of foundation performance). An “assault on power” was never intended, nor should one be expected.

Last spring I wrote a blog that drew an analogy between the expansion of the Gates Foundation board to include individuals who were not donors to the foundation and the establishment of any private foundation’s first board. At that time, I advised,

“Because they will set the culture of your philanthropy for years to come, your first board must comprise people who truly understand that they are stewards of your mission. They are the board members who will work directly with you, understanding not only what you want to accomplish, but also why and how. … And [those] trustees must have a sense of what their title suggests — that the donor or donors who chose them have faith in their judgment.”

In appointing three independent trustees with shared values and a shared mission, Bill and Melinda French Gates have kept their eyes on donor intent while bringing new voices to the board table. Congratulations to the new Gates Foundation trustees, to its founders and to those who will benefit from its generosity in the years to come. 

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