Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce could rock the world of charity

Bill and Melinda Gates, the leaders of the world’s most venerated and powerful philanthropy, said on Monday that they were getting a divorce — an earthquake moment in the nonprofit sector.

The billionaire couple sets the strategic vision for the $50 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they co-founded and which spends more than $5 billion a year on causes like US education and worldwide disease eradication. Their divorce potentially has enormous implications for their work.

The Gateses are America’s most famous billionaire philanthropists, with the power and profile to corral foreign governments, lobby for policy change, and inspire other billionaires to donate their money to charity. During the coronavirus pandemic, Bill Gates in particular has been one of the nation’s leading public health experts, appearing seemingly everywhere in the media and encouraging people to take the virus seriously.

The couple made the surprise announcement in concurrent posts on their personal Twitter pages. Upon posting the announcement, Melinda Gates added her maiden name, French, to her Twitter profile, suggesting that she may use the full name “Melinda French Gates” going forward.

In their statement, the Gateses said they would “continue our work together at the foundation.”

“But we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”

A Gates Foundation spokesperson said that the philanthropy did not anticipate changes to its work. Both Bill Gates and Melinda Gates will remain co-chairs and trustees of the foundation in their name, a spokesman said.

“They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction,” a Foundation spokesman said.

Bill Gates founded Microsoft decades ago but has increasingly turned more and more to his charitable work, resigning from Microsoft’s board last year. Melinda Gates was an early employee at Microsoft herself and has been a hands-on presence for years at their foundation; she also has her own interest in women’s issues that she coordinates through a separate outfit called Pivotal Ventures.

Disentangling a fortune of this size — the Gates family, for instance, is the country’s largest private owner of farmland — is sure to be complicated. The Gates family has a net worth over $100 billion, and their separation could set records for the largest divorce settlement to date. The largest settlement ever was recorded a few years ago when Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, finalized a divorce from MacKenzie Scott for about $36 billion.

While a divorce proceeding is typically a private affair, given how important Bill and Melinda Gates are to the world, this separation could have massive consequences for public life.