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Bill and Melinda Gates are worth about $145 billion, and for the past 10 years they’ve both focused on running their foundation, one of the largest private charitable foundations in the world. So when they announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage on Monday, it wasn’t just a shock—it was news. “The Gates Foundation, because of its size, and the Gates fortune, because of its size, definitely makes this a public matter,” says Teddy Schleifer, who writes about billionaires for Vox’s Recode. “There are nonprofits around the world … governments around the world, drugmakers around the world, critics of income inequality around the world, who are going to be watching this closely.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Schleifer about what the private decision of two billionaires means for the philanthropic ecosystem they created—and for the rest of us. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: How did they become the philanthropists they are today?
Teddy Schleifer: Bill and Melinda Gates obviously had a lot of money. Microsoft became a tech giant and they had all these resources, and over time they grew to be something beyond just big donors themselves. They grew to become public citizens in a way that outstripped their own profile as big donors. They began to see it as a responsibility of the wealthy to give away their fortune.
The Gates family began to sell others on this idea too, by creating what they called the “Giving Pledge”: a public commitment they and other billionaires made to give away at least half their money to charity either during their lifetimes or in their wills. It’s just one example of how Bill and Melinda Gates were able to bring their wealthy network on board with their vision. And looking at their relationship over the years, he’s been pretty honest that he would not be as philanthropic without his marriage to Melinda.
I think lots of wealthy billionaire men would feel similarly. Sadly, gender is a part of how billionaire philanthropy is practiced. Often you see lots of wealthy male CEOs make a lot of money and they say they don’t have the time to deal with it and they sort of hand it off to their wife. I think what was different about Bill and Melinda Gates’ relationship is that Melinda really knew what she was doing, and Melinda Gates was the driving force of this, especially in the early years. Melinda Gates and Bill Gates co-sign the annual letter every year, they’re the two co-chairs of the foundation, they have to agree on all these major decisions. But make no mistake—she was and is the key player.
In her first solo profile in Fortune magazine in 2008, Melinda talked about how when people came to her and Bill’s massive estate, she saw it as her job to make them comfortable. She might come to the foyer with no makeup and the dog and yoga pants and just kind of be normal for a bit to make people feel comfortable in their home. It stood out to me because Bill Gates never seemed to see his job as making people more comfortable—quite the opposite. He liked to spar with people at work. He was known for it.
That’s a great point. And credit to Melinda Gates for acknowledging the privilege that frankly Bill Gates grew up with to some extent too. He was at a private school and he’s had the ability to have access to computers and people who cultivated his interest in coding from a young age. Lots of billionaires like to make themselves seem like they’re these totally self-created men and women, and the idea of talking about privilege and the idea that there was some luck as part of the draw can almost—they see it as—compromise their success. Melinda Gates has stood out in that she has not done that, again, even in relation to her husband.
Lots of billionaires frequently like to talk about poverty in a way that almost pretends that they are not the winners of the same system that produces that poverty. They often want to talk about all the nonprofits that are helping, all the good they’re doing in the world. And I actually find it fairly unusual to find folks who truly reckon with that their own success is a symptom of that same system. And Melinda Gates has done that.
The other thing I noticed in profiles of Melinda Gates is that she alluded to changes to come. She’s suggested that she doesn’t talk about her personal beliefs about something like abortion, but she may do that in the future. It was these tantalizing tidbits of someone thinking about what their public life will look like years down the road.
Over the last few years, Melinda Gates has started to build a little bit more of a profile that’s independent of the Gates Foundation. In 2015, she started Pivotal Ventures, which is an investment company that’s focused on gender equity issues, which totally is separate from the Gates Foundation. So you’ve seen some efforts to reclaim a little bit more of her personal narrative and issues that she’s personally interested in, as opposed to things that are byproducts of her relationship with Bill Gates.
Can you lay out the scope of the Gates Foundation and the work it does? Where does it have influence?
It has influence everywhere. I believe they are in 135 countries. So no matter where you are, you are affected by the Gates Foundation probably in some way or another. There’s 1,500 staff that work there, so it is a huge, lumbering organization. There are $50 billion that are committed to the Gates Foundation’s work for now—more to come, in all likelihood. And they’ve been around for 20 years. They give away about $5 billion a year, more than any other U.S. philanthropy. So it is the big fish in the world of American nonprofits.
Publicly the Gates Foundation is signaling that not much is going to change [as a result of the divorce]. They say that we’re not expecting any change in the strategic direction. Bill and Melinda Gates are sticking around as co-owners.
And it’s not Bill and Melinda making most of the day-to-day decisions about how money is spent, so any groups receiving donations now will probably still get them, even years down the line.
I think actually a lot of the drama here and the consequence for the public is going to have to do with all the money that’s outside of the Gates Foundation, not the money that’s inside it. The Gates Foundation actually only has about $50 billion that’s contractually committed to it. There is another $150 billion that exists totally outside the walls of the Gates Foundation. This is the money that is attributed basically on a personal level right now to Bill and Melinda Gates.
In their Giving Pledge letter from a decade ago, they said that they had “committed the vast majority of our assets to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” Look, the giving pledge is not a contractually binding document. Obviously, that was written when they were together, over a decade ago. One of the big questions I personally have is is that still the case? That’s not an answer we’re going to get immediately. These things will be sorted out in probably a lengthy divorce proceeding. But there’s $150 billion that’s truly at stake here. Maybe that money will go to things like Pivotal Ventures, the kind of women-focused group that Melinda Gates started. Maybe it’ll go to something called Breakthrough Energy, which is an investment firm that Bill Gates has started focused on climate change efforts. I don’t believe that there is some requirement signed in blood that all the $150 billion will go to the Gates Foundation. That had always been presumed to have been the plan, but obviously plans are changing.
We’ve just seen a very public billionaire divorce—Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, which previously was the record for largest divorce settlement. And in the two years since that divorce happened, MacKenzie has really shaken up the world of philanthropy quite suddenly.
Yes, and that is an interesting parallel to this divorce. Obviously, it’s another Seattle tech gazillionaire getting divorced late in life. And at the time, we didn’t necessarily know that that was going to shake up the world of philanthropy—MacKenzie Scott had no more public profile as a charitable donor than her husband, Jeff Bezos, did, which is to say virtually none at all. Here, we are entering it with a lot more information. We know the causes that Melinda Gates is interested in. We know that she is willing to put in the time and effort to work on this stuff. I think this divorce is going to be probably more complicated overall. Their lives are so intertwined with the foundation. The price tag on it—I don’t know exactly how it’s going to split. If you’ll recall, MacKenzie took about a quarter of the assets, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be 50-50 either.
So there’s no reason to think that Melinda Gates is going to do what MacKenzie Scott did here, which is basically shoveling money out the door to all kinds of groups, no strings attached?
I don’t think so. Melinda Gates has a strategy. She’s had a strategy for a long time. If there is some huge strategic impasse between Bill and Melinda Gates that Melinda Gates now feels able to pursue in a way that she was not able to during their marriage, it’s news to me. I think the MacKenzie Scott/Jeff Bezos separation will probably be more impactful for the world of philanthropy than this one.
What do you think about the Gateses and their money as a force in the world, whether a place like the Gates Foundation or the Gateses themselves have too much authority because they’re this philanthropic powerhouse?
That is the thrust of the critique of billionaire philanthropy—that it is not just an act of generosity to give money away, even lots of money away, but it is fundamentally an expression of private power on public questions. Let’s take public health, for instance—the coronavirus pandemic. Bill Gates has certainly been a leader in the U.S.’s response and frankly in the world’s response to COVID. All good, right? Well, what if you say to yourself, Should Bill Gates have this much power? Should Bill Gates have this much influence in the world? He’s just a voter like me and you, one person. Why does Bill Gates have more authority over how Americans respond to the pandemic than you or I do?
Now, I think Bill and Melinda Gates are an interesting flashpoint in this debate because Bill Gates in a lot of ways makes the best case for billionaire philanthropy that I think any wealthy person can make. If you believe that wealthy people should be giving away lots of their money, Bill Gates is giving away almost all of his money. So it’s not a question of, like, Scrooge McDuck, why aren’t you spending more of your fortune on this? But with that outlay of cash comes questions about power. Bill and Melinda Gates certainly have more power in American democracy than almost anybody else who’s unelected does.
This is a great example of just how much influence billionaire philanthropists have, that a private matter between two individuals that is none of our business can have these ripple effects. Maybe it’ll be profound, maybe it’ll be overstated in the sweep of history. But the fact that we need to understand it and unpack it and do podcasts about it and write stories about it—that all speaks to just how unequal America has become to some extent, that two people’s romantic troubles can not wrongly be seen as important news.