Bill and Melinda Gates announced on Monday they were ending their 27-year marriage.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” they said in a joint statement. “Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.”
The statement added that they no longer “believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
The couple in 2000 founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a private philanthropic organization which funds research and advocacy work across the globe, including in some of the world’s most impoverished nations.
Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975 and served as its chief executive until 2000, stepped down from the company’s board last year and has since focused the majority of his efforts on philanthropy.
He still owns roughly 1.3% of Microsoft shares. His net worth is roughly $130 billion, according to Forbes, making him the fourth-richest person in the world. It’s unknown how assets will be handled in the divorce.
The Gates Foundation’s assets are nearly $50 billion, according to its financial statements, and it’s been considered the world’s largest private philanthropic organization for the past 20 years. It issued about $5 billion in grants annually during 2018 and 2019.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the philanthropic industry where the foundation holds such sway.
“Bill and Melinda Gates really pioneered a new form of large-scale philanthropy,” said David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a digital site that covers the world of philanthropy and fundraising. “They are probably the most consequential figures in philanthropy in recent history, if not ever.”
That also means that the large-scale giving, toward the public good, becomes shaped by private moments.
In contrast to previous mega-donors of early generations, such as the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Gates helped pioneer the new tradition of “living donors” who make the majority of their wealth in their early or mid-career, said Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute — a progressive think tank that conducts social policy and economic research — and himself a Gates Foundation grantee.
“This is a moment of discomfort that we all have in scrutinizing this private moment of a single couple … really just an exaggerated reminder of how uncomfortable the whole arrangement is where individuals can have so much power,” said Soskis.
“This is a moment when that collision becomes especially uncomfortable and public and visible,” he said.
In their statement announcing the separation, the couple — who are co-chairs of the foundation — said they would continue to work together in the philanthropic mission.
The question is whether they would go on to create their own separate philanthropic efforts outside the foundation they founded together.
“There’s a lot of money waiting in the wings,” said Callahan, depending on whether there was a prenuptial agreement and what the terms were. “Were Melinda to get some portion of that money it would be enough to fund her as a separate philanthropist at a large scale.”
The foundation in recent months gave $1.75 billion in grants toward accelerating development and distribution of Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.
That included a $4.9 million grant in November to German biotech company BioNTech, which with Pfizer created the first authorized mRNA vaccine for the treatment of Covid-19.
For decades, one of Bill Gates’ objectives has been to give away the majority of his wealth in his lifetime. In 2010, he and fellow billionaire Warren Buffet created “The Giving Pledge,” where wealthy people commit to donating their assets.
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced they were signing The Giving Pledge at the birth of their daughter, itself made as a Facebook post to their daughter. MacKenzie Scott became a major player in the world of philanthropy after the announcement of her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
“Effective philanthropy requires a lot of time and creativity — the same kind of focus and skills that building a business requires,” Gates told CNN in 1999 profile of his foundation’s investment strategies.
In February 2021, Gates published “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” laying out his findings and argument for addressing climate change by achieving net-zero carbon emissions. In it, he took the long view.
“If you want to understand the kind of damage that climate change will inflict, look at Covid-19 and then imagine spreading the pain out over a much longer period of time,” he wrote. “By 2100 it could be five times as deadly.”