In the two months since Bill and Melinda Gates (now going by Melinda French Gates) announced their plan to divorce, speculation about the fate of their foundation has been widespread. And now, the suspicions that big changes lay ahead at the Gates Foundation have certainly bore fruit.
The first domino to fall came at the end of June, when Warren Buffett announced that he was stepping down as one of the foundation’s three trustees (the other two are Bill and Melinda). Then, last week, Mark Suzman, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive officer, made several blockbuster announcements in an open letter to the foundation’s employees. According to the letter, Bill and Melinda will contribute $15 billion to the foundation’s existing $50 billion endowment, which will be the largest contribution since the foundation began. And the foundation’s board of trustees—which for decades has consisted of exactly three billionaires—will expand to include a yet-unknown number of new trustees to bring “fresh perspective, insight and expertise.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Suzman’s letter came at the end, where he described a new agreement between Bill and Melinda: If, after two years, the divorcees decide “that they cannot continue to work together” at the foundation, Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee and “receive personal resources from Bill for her philanthropic work.” The Gates Foundation’s endowment, the letter continues, will “not be affected.”
This curious arrangement seems to imply that the parties involved believe this is a real possibility. Over the years, the emerging differences between Bill and Melinda regarding the foundation’s priorities have been evident yet carefully downplayed by the pair, who are well aware that the perception of disunity at the Gates Foundation could affect its complex global partnerships. This is doubtless why the announcement of French Gates’s possible departure was paired with a hefty $15 billion infusion to the foundation’s endowment.
If Melinda indeed ends up continuing her philanthropic work independently of the Gates Foundation, we actually have a good idea of what her funding priorities might be—namely, an amalgamation of the Gates Foundation’s current gender portfolio (which has been globally focused) combined with the funding priorities at Pivotal Ventures, an LLC that Melinda established in 2015 to “help develop and implement innovative solutions to problems affecting U.S. women and families.”
Under Melinda’s leadership, the Gates Foundation’s gender equity funding has morphed and deepened over the years. It initially focused on birth control and infant, maternal and child health. The foundation later increased programming for economic mobility, education, women’s empowerment and closing the “data gap” on gender issues. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Melinda’s public statements have centered on the “she-cession,” the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s employment, with new or increased funding for digital banking access, government assistance, and the creation of “women’s self-help groups” (WAGs) to promote women’s empowerment in local communities.
With unilateral control of a new philanthropic project, whether a foundation or otherwise, Melinda would likely deepen her commitments to these same areas while expanding the U.S. programs at Pivotal Ventures. It also seems likely that she would leave agriculture, global vaccines and the heavily funded disease programs under the purview of the Gates Foundation. If so, this means that a larger proportion of the Gateses’ wealth, which now stands at nearly $130 billion, would be diverted to gender equity and women’s empowerment. And that, in turn, could prove transformative.
Women and girls is a perennially underfunded area of philanthropy, with Candid data from 2018 showing that only 2.26% of funding (global and domestic) goes to that category. Increased giving from a major donor like Melinda Gates could be game-changing. With a 20-year track record at the Gates Foundation, the strengths and weaknesses of French Gates’s giving have long been a matter of public debate. If she were to use a new philanthropic vehicle—whatever form that ends up taking—to embrace the strongest aspects of her giving strategies while learning from past mistakes, she could create lasting, transformative change. Here is where she might begin.
Give fewer grants to IGOs, and larger grants to women’s funds
Some can’t help but hope that future independent giving by French Gates would replicate the giving spree of the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who gave away over $8.5 billion in 2020 and 2021, largely in the form of unrestricted gifts to progressive organizations. But in contrast with Scott, French Gates already has a long philanthropic record, and so far, it’s not been nearly as progressive.
Over the past two decades, the Gates Foundation has practiced a supersized version of top-down philanthropy, with a propensity for giving that centers on partnerships with intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), local governments, corporations and global financial institutions. While there have been progressive shifts in recent years, the foundation has been slow to adopt the democratizing trends in philanthropy, like moving from project-based grants to general operating grants or prioritizing direct funding to community-led organizations.
Some of the Gates Foundation’s money eventually ends up in the hands of grassroots groups, but it is often funneled through intermediary parties such as the WHO, USAID, the World Bank and the U.N. While working with governments and IGOs is the most effective choice in many contexts, it’s arguably overused at the Gates Foundation, which has been slow to embrace the growing movement toward bottom-up or trust-based philanthropy.
According to joint research from the the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) and Mama Cash, less than 1% of global gender-focused development aid ends up directly in the hands of women’s rights groups and women-led organizing, in part because so much is given to IGOs instead. This is despite the emerging consensus that “one of the most significant ways to ensure sustainable change and advance gender equality is to support and to boldly resource feminist movements.”
French Gates could turbocharge the impact of her giving by more heavily prioritizing direct giving to smaller, women-led organizations, or to the networks of women’s funds with strong ties to these local groups. The Gates Foundation has already supported some such funds, including the African Women’s Development Fund, the Global Fund for Women, and the U.N. Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. But Melinda, leading a theoretical new philanthropy, could lean harder in this direction by making large gifts to a new batch of women’s funds globally and domestically, while substantially increasing existing support to places like Mama Cash, Women’s Funding Network, Equality Fund Collective, and Prospera, which serve as hubs in the network of women’s funds.
Expand domestic giving with more focus on policy, voting rights and tax reform
Melinda’s recent work at Pivotal Ventures shows a keen interest in policy issues that affect women, including childcare, elderly care, early education, labor protections and family leave policy. Pivotal recently helped launch the Future of Longevity Accelerator to “address the unmet needs of older adults and their caregivers,” and in June, French Gates met with several senior Biden officials as part of her increasingly vocal support of federal paid family leave policy.
But Melinda’s work in these areas is in its infancy, and she could accelerate her impact with large, unrestricted grants to key organizations with whom the Gates Foundation already has a relationship, such as the National Women’s Law Center, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Partnership for Women & Families. She could also forge new partnerships with political, state-based labor groups like Care in Action that organize political advocacy campaigns.
French Gates could also strategically leverage her giving by paying more attention to the larger fiscal, labor and regulatory issues that are the underappreciated drivers of inequality. This could include giving funds to organizations that advocate for progressive tax reform. Supporting individual policies (like paid leave) while failing to advocate for the tax reforms that fund these policies is like swimming against the current. Progressive objectives like raising the corporate tax rate, implementing a wealth tax, closing corporate loopholes and making the new child tax credit permanent could go a long way toward boosting women’s economic mobility—not just because of direct benefits like tax credits, but because these changes would fund proposed federal programs like universal pre-kindergarten.
In a similar vein, French Gates could pair her advocacy for individual policies with a recognition that voter suppression poses a threat to these same progressive policies by silencing the voices of women who need them the most. Pivotal Ventures has recently funded U.S. women’s political leadership, but with a bipartisan approach. This includes funding the Women’s Public Leadership Network, which helps “center- and right-leaning women to become more involved in the political process, run for elected office, and obtain political appointment.” If French Gates really believes her oft-repeated message that “equity can’t wait,” it’s time to more decisively support the health of a democratic system that upholds principles of equality—rather than funding members of a political right that has doubled down on voter suppression.
Meeting the urgency of the moment would mean funding a range of progressive groups fighting to expand voting rights, fight voter suppression and eliminate gerrymandering. Many of these groups received large infusions of grant money from MacKenzie Scott in 2020, but still need greater resources.
Invest more heavily in combating gender-based and sexual violence
Funding to combat gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual violence comprises a tiny portion of Pivotal Ventures’ portfolio, and isn’t a central focus at the Gates Foundation, either (though the foundation has certainly been involved). At the recent Generation Equality Forum convened by U.N. Women at the end of June, the Gates Foundation announced a $2.1 billion, five-year commitment to gender equality that will fund health and family planning, professional development and women’s empowerment collectives. Funds earmarked for promoting safety and combating GBV were not mentioned.
This tracks with the larger philanthropic trend of underfunding these areas, even among women’s philanthropies. For the Gates Foundation, focusing less on GBV is part of a strategy that favors economic empowerment, education, family planning and changing gender norms; when women are educated, independent and less stigmatized, they are less likely to end up in abusive situations. Tackling the problem of gender-based violence more directly has not been as common for the Gateses. Which is too bad, really, because it’s an area in desperate need of funding.
In the U.S. and globally, a groundswell of constituent-led organizations is taking an intersectional approach that connects violence with poverty and trauma. These organizations would be turbocharged with MacKenzie-Scott-style cash infusions. Local funds and foundations also play a big role in funding domestic anti-violence programs, and these could be a great place for Melinda to park some unrestricted mega-million-dollar donations. The Women’s Foundation of California, for example, has done much to help survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence, and the Chicago Community Trust supports shelters for survivors of domestic violence and other key women’s services.
Broaden funding for reproductive rights by supporting abortion rights
French Gates’s support for women’s reproductive health and rights has been evident via her foundation’s ever-evolving birth control and women’s health initiatives. Most recently, the foundation expanded its birth control programming with renewed commitments to Family Planning 2030, a mass cross-sector initiative to provide tens of millions more women in countries all over the world with quality birth control options. The Gates Foundation also continues its global programming to improve maternal and infant health outcomes, particularly in Africa, India and South Asia.
But when it comes to direct funding for abortion care, abortion rights or abortion advocacy, the Gates Foundation has been largely absent, ceding that ground to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which, by most estimates, is the world’s largest philanthropic abortion funder. The Gateses have preferred to sidestep political landmines by declining to fund abortions directly. This has left a crater-sized hole in funding for abortion services globally and domestically, because the U.S. government, as per the Hyde Amendment, is restricted from funding most abortion services. As a result, the role of private philanthropy is particularly important in this area.
If Melinda were to forge an independent path as a philanthropist, the question of whether she will change her stance is an interesting one. Her past support for organizations like Planned Parenthood has been project-based, with funds earmarked for non-abortion programming. But as general operating grants become more popular among billionaire philanthropists—and as the right-wing attacks on abortion rights accelerate—French Gates might eventually give larger, unrestricted grants to organizations that provide abortion care or advocate for pro-abortion policy. And that could significantly strengthen the pro-choice movement at a time when the help is most needed.
Cede control to constituent leaders and experts
In the Gates Foundation’s 2018 annual letter, Melinda wrote, “We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful—it’s also more effective.”
The Gateses’ lumbering learning curve in this area has unfolded publicly, as many of their programs fell apart due to an initial failure to work closely with constituents and on-the-ground experts. The well-known examples are in global health and U.S. education. As Bill says in the foundation’s 2020 annual letter, “Much of our early work in education seemed to hit a ceiling … it became clear to us that scaling in education doesn’t mean getting the same solution out to everyone. Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach.”
Of course, at the time, many experts did understand the importance of tailoring programs to specific locations and school districts. The Gateses just weren’t listening to those people. Their newer U.S. education strategy focuses more on “locally driven solutions identified by networks of schools.”
The lesson was learned, but it took 15 years and a lot of money. However Melinda French Gates chooses to spend her newly independent wealth for women’s empowerment, the programming areas aren’t as important as the strategies employed. To paraphrase MacKenzie Scott, will Gates more fully embrace the philosophy of seeding change by ceding control? As Melinda herself states, centering the constituent’s perspective is not only more respectful—it’s also more effective.
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