Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the richest people in the world, who are rebuilding compassion and public health with Mr. Gates fortune as the founder of Microsoft, said on Monday that they were splitting up.
For decades, Mr. and Mrs. Gates have become a world-class force, with their many charitable contributions giving them access to higher levels of government, business, and the nonprofit sector. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a budget of $ 50 billion, has made significant contributions to areas such as global health and early childhood education and has made significant strides in reducing malaria and other communicable diseases. Last year, the couple was particularly notable, commenting regularly on the global war on Covid-19 as their base spent more than $ 1 billion to fight the disease.
“After much thought and much work in our relationship, we have decided to end our marriage,” Mr. and Mrs. Gates said in a statement posted on Twitter.
They go on to say that “they have built a global foundation to help all people live healthier, more productive lives” and that they “continue to share the belief in those machines,” but “they no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives.”
The foundation said in a statement that Mr. and Ms. Gates would remain co-chairs and trustees and no changes were expected in the organization.
“They will continue to work together to develop and adopt basic strategies, to represent the fundamental issues, and to set the direction of the organization as a whole,” the statement said.
However, the divorce will raise new questions about the fate of Gates’ fortune, many of which have not yet been donated to the Gates Foundation. Mr. Gates, 65, the founder of Microsoft, is one of the richest people in the world, worth an estimated $ 124 billion, according to Forbes. The Gates family has been married for 27 years and has three children, aged 18 to 25.
“The Gates Foundation is the most important and influential organization in the world today,” said Rob *****, a professor of political science at Stanford University. “Divorce can have a profound effect on the foundation and its function worldwide.”
With 1,600 staff members in offices around the world, the Gates Foundation gives away roughly $5 billion each year in areas like global public health and development. Over more than two decades, the foundation has spent billions to push vaccines to the developing world, working with pharmaceutical executives to transform the market.
The foundation tapped its expertise and relationships to play a significant role in formulating the global response to the pandemic, investing early in vaccine candidates, and helping shape Covax, the global initiative organizing the purchase of vaccines for 92 poor countries and dozens of other nations.
Mr. and Ms. Gates have won great praise for their efforts, but the foundation has also received a fair share of criticism for working to protect the intellectual property rights of private companies. That has come into focus now more than ever as many national governments have pressed for open access to Covid vaccines to put an end to the pandemic.
“Bill and Melinda Gates helped pioneer big philanthropy in its present form,” said David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy. “Everything has been outsized.”
A former member of the staff who worked with both Gateses said people in the foundation’s orbit were texting and emailing one another after hearing the news, trying to figure out what had happened and what it might mean for the foundation. The consensus was that it would be fine for the time being, the former staff member said, but there were questions about what the effect would be — depending on how amicable the divorce is and how they work together going forward — the next time it came time to review strategies and plans.
“While this is a difficult time of personal change for our co-chairs, together they have assured me of their continued commitment to the foundation that they have worked so hard to build together over the past 20 years,” the foundation’s chief executive, Mark Suzman, told employees in an email Monday.
He described “some short-term adjustments to their schedules,” but said both would continue to participate in meetings inside and outside the foundation and would speak to staff directly at the upcoming annual employee meeting.
While the Gateses did not provide details of how they would structure their finances, they are believed to have a prenuptial agreement. The Gateses are the largest owners of farmland in America and have vast investments through Cascade Investment, which manages Mr. Gates’s wealth and owns large stakes in the Four Seasons hotel chain, the Canadian National Railway, and AutoNation, the country’s largest chain of car dealerships, among other companies. The family’s homes and properties include a 66,000-square-foot Washington State mansion, which features amenities such as a trampoline room, a screening room, and a multiroom library filled with rare documents and artifacts.
Mr. Callahan said Ms. Gates, 56, could assume even more influence in the years ahead.
She already has her firm, Pivotal Ventures, which she has used to invest in issues related to women’s economic empowerment. (Mr. Gates has his own private office, Gates Ventures, for pursuing interests outside the foundation.) Should she receive a portion of Mr. Gates’s Microsoft holdings, she could set up a new foundation or make direct gifts to other causes she supports.
“You could imagine Melinda Gates being a much more progressive giver on her own,” Mr. Callahan said. “She’s going to be a major force in philanthropy for decades to come.”