Just as Many Questions as Answers for Those Following Gates Foundation News

It’s been a little over two months since Bill and Melinda Gates announced they are divorcing, and since then there has been much discussion about the future of their philanthropic work. It’s certainly unusual for a foundation as prominent as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to experience a complete governance overhaul. While some things have become more clear—I addressed potential board changes in a June article—many important questions remain.

Whatever happens, the inevitable changes coming to the foundation will be an important case study when considering best practices for operations, governance and protecting donor intent at large foundations. The Gates news may be the biggest philanthropy story of 2021, but the full impact on the charitable sector will not be known for some time—likely years to come. We’ll continue to observe the developments with interest.

What has changed since the Gates announced their news on May 3, 2021?

  • Although he will remain a donor, Warren Buffet has resigned as a board member of the Gates Foundation. A trustee since 2006, the 90-year-old Buffet implied that age was the primary factor in his decision, noting of his tenure as Berkshire Hathaway CEO and chairman, “I’m clearly playing in a game that, for me, has moved past the fourth quarter into overtime.”
  • In a display of continuity, Bill and Melinda Gates approved multi-year funding plans for polio eradication and gender equality and will add an additional $15 billion to the foundation’s endowment to support its existing programs in those and other areas.
  • Anticipating potential governance challenges, the foundation announced that Melinda French Gates would leave the foundation if, after two years, either she or Bill Gates decided they could no longer work together. Should that occur, she would receive funding from Bill Gates’s personal resources to continue her own philanthropic efforts.
  • Additional trustees will be identified, and their responsibilities clarified by the end of this year, with a public announcement in 2022.

Every new fact, however, seems to lead to another question—all of them falling to Gates Foundation CEO, Mark Suzman, to answer. Thanks to the subscriber-based newsletter of Teddy Schleifer, a Silicon Valley reporter, we’ve heard a few of those questions and answers from a recent staff meeting at the foundation. It’s not surprising that many of the staff members’ questions echo those of the philanthropy’s colleagues, observers and persistent critics.

  • Despite many statements to the contrary, question #1 remains, “Will all these changes (and now the potential departure of one of the founders) affect the foundation’s mission?” Answer: No.
  • Will the foundation maintain its intention to close after 20 years of the death of both Bill and Melinda? Answer: Yes.
  • Will more staff be hired in the wake of the latest donation and the departure of Warren Buffet, who apparently was quite vocal about “bloated foundations?” Answer: We did hire more staff and we’ll work smarter going forward.

Personally, my questions are all about governance:

  • Where will the Gates Foundation look for its new board members?
  • By what criteria will they be chosen?
  • Will Bill and Melinda consider bringing on any of their children who now range in age from 18 to 25?
  • Given that the current foundation retained a board of only three persons for two decades, how many new trustees will be added?

We may have a clue to the answer for that last question from the above-mentioned foundation staff meeting. At the meeting, Gates CEO Suzman reportedly told staff, “Don’t expect a very large board.” 

Whatever the size of the new Gates board, we hope that those making the choices follow the advice offered in our June 7 blog and “choose board members who will make the best decisions to steward the foundation’s mission.”

For more information on best practices for good governance at foundations see the governance section of our Donor Intent Hub.

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