Melinda and Bill Gates, two of the world’s most powerful philanthropist couples who have reshaped philanthropy over two decades, recently announced that they were ending their relationship.
It would be just another billionaire divorce had the couple not been the founders of one of the most powerful philanthropist foundations, with an endowment of some $50 billion, and active in such different fields as global health and early-childhood education, empowerment of women and the fight against malaria. Together with their longtime friend, billionaire Warren Buffet, the couple (who are credited with a $130 billion fortune) have been at the forefront of new philanthropist trends and initiatives such as the “Giving Pledge”: a campaign encouraging wealthy people to give away the majority of their fortune.
In a statement announcing the split, the couple went on to say that they had “built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives” and that they “continue to share a belief in that mission,” but they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple in this next phase of [their] lives.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is credited as the most important and influential philanthropic entity in the world today, and beyond all the fuss and buzz around why the couple are divorcing after a 27-year marriage and three children, it is important is to understand what it will mean for the world of philanthropy and the future of their foundation. With 1,600 staff members in offices around the world, the Gates Foundation gives away roughly $5 billion each year.
Why is Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce creating such global anxiety? Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce could be an earthquake for philanthropy or simply a drama-free divorce, time will tell. However, the issue this high-profile divorce raises, for all of us and ultimately for the causes the couple support, is what Stanford University professor Rob Reich identified: “If philanthropy is the direction of private assets toward some public influence, then this private decision has huge public ripple effects.” In other words, it is an indication that a single foundation has too much impact because, ultimately, it is too powerful and plays a disproportionate role in society. It brings us to the equation of Philanthropy versus Democracy and how the wealthy (and their foundations) influence public policy without any real accountability.
It is well-known that the couple have had differences in the past concerning the foundation’s strategies. Melinda Gates, an advocate for the empowerment of women, may well be a driving philanthropic force on her own in the years to come. Ultimately, what creates public value in society is more about the kind of person you are than societal conditions. To act for the common good always starts with one’s own inspiration. For now, it’s just a divorce.
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).