On May 3, Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the world’s richest couples, shocked the world with the announcement that their 27-year marriage was coming to an end, raising questions about the impact on the couple’s philanthropy, which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars poured into China over the last couple of decades.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world’s richest non-profit organisations with 1,600 employees globally. It is known for its work in areas of public health, education and climate change. There are currently no planned changes for the foundation and the couple will remain co-chairs, the organisation said in a statement.
“We continue to share a belief in that mission and will 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,” the couple said in a joint statement posted to Twitter.
The divorce settlement is expected to be one of the largest ever made, possibly topping the US$38bil (RM156.63bil) that MacKenzie Scott got when in 2019 she separated from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man with a current net worth of US$193bil (RM795.54bil), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Bill Gates, co-founder of tech behemoth Microsoft, is the world’s fourth-richest person with a net worth of US$145bil (RM597.69bil).
Bill and Melinda Gates have spent years looking for new ways to give away their fortune. They started the foundation in 1994, when it was known as the William H. Gates Foundation. In 2000, it was merged with the Gates Learning Foundation under its current name.
In 2002, the foundation made its first grant in China, giving US$100,000 (RM412,200) to the China Academy of Health Policy in Beijing, according to data published on its website. In the 19 years since, the organisation has given more than US$377.6mil (RM1.55bil) through 271 grants in the country. That represents 0.5% of the US$67.8bil (RM279.47bil) the foundation has spent since it started.
In 2007, the foundation opened an office in Beijing, aiming to help the country address major domestic challenges such as preventing infectious diseases and poverty. Its donations in the country have mostly been in the area of public health, with funds marked for helping with numerous diseases, including HIV, polio, malaria and, more recently, Covid-19.
During the pandemic, the foundation committed US$5mil (RM20.61mil) to help with China’s Covid-19 response and worked with Chinese government agencies and private companies to slow and control the spread of the outbreak inside the country. It also provided technical support to accelerate the development of appropriate diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics for the disease.
The foundation’s funds have also supported the expansion of China’s National Immunisation Programme, which launched in 1978 with the goal of controlling vaccine-preventable diseases, and it has worked to enhance primary health care, improve child nutrition, and promote philanthropy in the country, according to its website.
Other areas of its work in China include bringing high-quality, low-cost Chinese-made tools and treatments to market, transferring agricultural innovations to other parts of the world, making affordable drugs and health products available to developing countries, and helping to develop sanitation technologies.
The foundation’s biggest grant in China came in 2016, when it gave US$35mil (RM144.27mil) to the Beijing Huayi Health and Drug Research Institute to help translate fundamental research into practical applications.
Much of the Seattle-based foundation’s money has come from the founding couple, who put US$36bil (RM148.39bil) into it between 1994 and 2018, according to the website. By the end of 2019, it had US$43.3bil (RM178.48bil) in assets, spending more than US$5bil (RM20.61bil) for the year, financial filings show.
No organisation can give away money indefinitely, though, without a healthy portfolio of investments. The vast majority of the foundation’s investments are in the US, where it has made 109 of them. Outside its home country, the Gates Foundation has made more investments in China than anywhere else.
Between 2007 and 2012, the foundation made eight investments in mainland China and two in Hong Kong, covering the retail, biotech, software, automotive manufacturing, steel, containers and wholesale industries.
Its last investment in the country was in Burger King China the year it was formed in a joint venture between the US-based namesake company and Turkey’s Tab Food Investments.
While the foundation has not invested in any Chinese companies in nine years, its charitable giving in the country has continued. Last year, the organisation made 57 grants in China, more than in any other year, amounting to US$26.8mil (RM110.46mil). So far this year, it has given another US$1.5mil (RM6.18mil) in China through four grants.
For the time being, the foundation’s efforts in China and elsewhere are likely secure, according to Audrey Chia, associate professor of business and medicine at the National University of Singapore.
“For now, I don’t expect any big changes to the foundation. It is professionally run,” Chia said. “It has committed to long-term programmes and philanthropic themes such as global health and gender and poverty alleviation, which are unlikely to change overnight.”
Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University professor who studies non-profit organisations, also said he does not expect any immediate changes, but he suggested the couple could have increasingly divergent interests over time.
“Depending on whether Bill and Melinda Gates retain similar priorities and approaches, this could manifest as each pursuing different objectives in the framework of [the foundation],” Mittendorf said, noting that investor Warren Buffett also plays a key role as a trustee. “Thus far, we don’t have any indications that a shift in approaches or priorities would actually happen, however.”
Still, Chia noted that the divorce appears to be amicable, so it looks unlikely that personal issues will cloud their work.
“I think it is possible for them to be divorced and yet work together at the foundation,” Chia said. – South China Morning Post