The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began with ambitions that by its high standards today seem almost quaint: to provide free Internet access to public libraries in the United States. As the goals of its founders grew, so did the foundation’s reach, until it achieved its current position as a leading private institution in global public health.

With 1,600 staff members allocating $ 5 billion in annual grants to 135 countries around the world, the Gates Foundation has set a new standard for private philanthropy in the 21st century.

This was all called into question on Monday when the world learned that the 27-year-married foundation co-chairs had filed for divorce in Washington state. Grant recipients and staff wondered what was going to happen and if it might affect the mission.

The message from headquarters in Seattle was clear: Bill and Melinda Gates may be going their separate ways, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is not going anywhere. Their roles as Co-Chairs and Directors do not change, and they will continue to set the agenda for the organization that bears their name. In an email Monday, the CEO of the Gates Foundation, Mark Suzman, reassured staff that Mr. and Mrs. Gates remain committed to the organization.

While noting that this was “obviously a difficult time of personal change for” the couple, Mr Suzman added that “Bill and Melinda have explicitly asked me to express their deep gratitude for everything you do each day. day, especially during the Covid-19 crisis, as well as for your support and understanding during this difficult time.

The foundation’s $ 50 billion endowment is in an irrevocable charitable trust. It cannot be deleted or divided as a marital asset, said Megan Tompkins-Stange, professor of public policy and philanthropy specialist at the University of Michigan. She noted, however, that there was no legal mandate to prevent them from changing course.

“I think there might be changes to come,” she said. “But I don’t see this as a big asteroid landing on the ground of philanthropy, as some of the hyperbole around it indicates.”

Bill Gates has been an object of fascination in America almost from the moment he stepped on the scene as the founder of Microsoft, the prototypical computer genius turned entrepreneur, the cheesy tinsel of Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks and designs. arty. He became the richest man in the world, and with the 1998 Justice Department antitrust case against Microsoft, he was heralded as the new John D. Rockefeller, for better or for worse.

But over the decades that followed, he transformed his image through the work he and Ms. Gates did in conjunction with the foundation, becoming known mostly for his generosity rather than cruelty in business. The nearly $ 55 billion the Gates Foundation donated also gave the couple instant access to heads of state and industry leaders.

Ms. Gates has her own growing profile, both through her work for the foundation and through her firm, Pivotal Ventures, which she has used since 2015 to invest in causes related to women’s economic empowerment. Some observers noted that Ms Gates had added her maiden name, French, to her Twitter profile.

The couple rolled out their relationship last year in response to the pandemic, calling on leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi to garner support for their plans. The foundation has so far committed $ 1.75 billion in its Covid-19 response and has played a key role in shaping the global deal to deliver vaccines to poor countries.

This prominence has also brought a fair share of scrutiny, highlighting Mr. Gates’ strong advocacy of intellectual property rights – in this case, specific to vaccine patents – even in times of extreme crisis, as well as the broader issue. how rich unelected people can play such a huge role on the world stage.

“In a democratic civil society, a couple’s personal choices should not lead academic research centers, service providers and nonprofits to wonder if they can continue,” said Maribel Morey, Founding Executive Director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences.

Ms Gates filed for divorce on Monday in King County, Washington Superior Court, calling the marriage “irretrievably broken off” and asking the court to dissolve it. In her file, Ms Gates said they were already separated. She signed the form in Bellevue, Washington, and Mr. Gates signed her role in Palm Desert, California, near where they own a house.

The petition stated that the couple had a separation contract in place. Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show transfers on Monday of millions of shares of Canadian National Railways and AutoNation worth a combined $ 1.8 billion to Ms. Gates of Cascade Investment, a holding company for Mr. Gates.

A huge fortune across almost every level, the $ 1.8 billion is less than 2% of the Forbes estimate of Mr. Gates’ total worth and presumably just a small step in the ultimate division of the couple’s marital assets. Transfers were reported earlier by Bloomberg.

Before news of the divorce broke, the Gates Foundation was in the midst of a period of upheaval. The pandemic closed its seat in Seattle even as staff from the highest ranks in government health agencies and the pharmaceutical industry worked to find a response to the deadly and rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.

And as his public profile during the pandemic grew, false conspiracy theories, such as the global vaccination effort, allowed Mr. Gates to implant microchips to track people, clearly bogus but still damaging, as the misinformation increased reluctance to vaccinate.

Then Mr. Gates’ father, Bill Gates Sr., also co-chair of the foundation, passed away in September. The eldest Mr. Gates had initially taken the helm of his son’s charitable activities while the younger Mr. Gates was still the head of Microsoft. Bill Gates Sr. was seen by many as a calm voice and moral compass within the organization, even though he had taken a step back in recent years.

The third trustee, billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett, turned 90 last year and has started discussing succession plans for his company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Dr Morey said the recent changes could also present an opportunity to create a large and diverse board of directors while increasing the visibility of the foundation’s decision-making process. “Part of the anxiety comes from the lack of transparency in the day-to-day operations of the Gates Foundation,” she said.

Mr and Mrs Gates have faced difficulties in their marriage in recent years and even at times when it almost fell apart, according to people close to them. Now that they’ve made the break formal and legal, many in their orbit are scrambling to try and figure out what this means for the foundation. There are concerns that Ms Gates is putting more effort into Pivotal Ventures while Mr Gates is spending even more time in his own private office, Gates Ventures. Others describe these fears as exaggerated.

“Bill and Melinda have always had their separate projects. They each always spent time on it and spent time on their foundation, ”said Greg Ratliff, senior vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, who worked at the Gates Foundation for a decade. “This will continue to be a great and influential foundation, and each of them individually will be as influential as I think they were collectively.”

While it seems clear that the foundation will go ahead with its vast resources, there remains the question of the Gates fortune, who Forbes estimates at $ 124 billion. The divorce will not affect the money that has already been given to the foundation’s trust, but the couple may spend less money on it over time than they would have if they had stayed together.

“People are right to feel unchecked when it comes to the direction of the foundation,” said Ms. Tompkins-Stange of the University of Michigan. “There is a lot of ambiguity, as there can be in any divorce situation, but they seem determined to co-parenting the foundation.”

David Gelles contribution to reports.

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