Gates divorce forces $66 billion foundation to weigh changes

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Mr Bill Gates and Mrs Melinda French Gates are also considering bringing in outside directors. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - When Mr Bill Gates and Ms Melinda French Gates announced their surprise split after 27 years of marriage, they said there would be no changes to their US$50 billion (S$66 billion) foundation.

Now, about three weeks later, after revelations that Mrs French Gates considered divorce years earlier partly because of Mr Gates' ties to late financier Jeffrey Epstein, and amid reports of his dubious behaviour at Microsoft Corp, there are signs that change is coming to one of the world's most powerful philanthropic organisations.

Mr Mark Suzman, the Gates Foundation's chief executive officer, has told employees that he is in talks to strengthen "the long-term sustainability and stability of the foundation".

"I'm actively discussing with Bill and Melinda steps they and Warren might take," Mr Suzman said in a statement on Thursday (May 27), referring to billionaire Warren Buffett, the third member of the foundation's board.

Mr Suzman added that no decisions had been made, but noted that Mr Gates and Mrs French Gates have "reaffirmed their commitment to the foundation and continue to work together on behalf of our mission".

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that they were also considering bringing in outside directors, citing people it did not identify.

There are currently just three trustees: Mr Gates, Mrs French Gates and Mr Buffett, who has added more than US$27 billion of his own money to the foundation's coffers over the past 15 years.

The three-person board is unusually small for a foundation of its size. The Ford Foundation, which is roughly a fifth the size of the Gates Foundation, has 15 members on its board. The Rockefeller Foundation, at a 10th of the size, has no fewer than 12 at any time.

When the couple announced their split earlier this month, a foundation spokesman said in a statement that "no changes to their roles or the organisation are planned".

In the weeks following the announcement, there have been several transfers of shares worth billions of dollars from Mr Gates' investment office, Cascade Investment, to Mrs French Gates.

Mr Gates, 65, a Microsoft co-founder, is the fourth-richest person in the world, with a net worth of US$144 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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