Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Expanding Board of Trustees, Will Announce Names in 2022

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is looking to expand its board of trustees, its CEO said Wednesday, though the number has not yet been decided. The choices, to be approved by the couple, are expected to be announced in January 2022.

Bill and Melinda French Gates are the only current members following Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett's resignation in June. Foundation CEO Mark Suzman said Buffett's departure seemed to be the perfect time to expand the board.

"We thought even if they [Bill and Melinda] do work effectively and continue to work effectively together, that's not going to be optimal governance," said Suzman. "And so this is the right time to expand the number of trustees and bring in some independent and thoughtful outside voices who can help guide and strengthen the foundation over the long term."

Many philanthropy experts have called for diversity in the foundation's leadership, and Gates and French Gates have both said the changes will help sustain the foundation and bring diversity to its leadership. Experts have also said most of the power has been concentrated in a few people, but Suzman said outside calls for change were not a factor in the decision to expand the board.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Gates Foundation
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's CEO says plans are underway to expand the board of trustees, with new trustees expected to be announced in January 2022. David Ryder/Getty Images

Gates and French Gates will continue to work together as co-chairs of their foundation even after their planned divorce. However, if after two years they decide they cannot continue in their roles, she will resign her positions as co-chair and trustee, the foundation said.

If French Gates resigns, Gates would essentially buy her out of the foundation, one of the world's largest private charitable organizations, and she would receive resources from him to do her own philanthropic work. The resources received would be separate from the foundation's endowment, according to the announcement.

Suzman said in an interview with the AP that the announcement was made so the couple could be "transparent about an agreement they've made with each other."

"That is part of the private agreement between the two of them as part of their wider divorce agreement," Suzman said. "They've both assured me, individually and together, and in the way they've been showing up in the work for the last two months, that their full intent and commitment is to be long-term co-chairs trustees of the foundation. And that's exactly what we're planning around."

To reflect that commitment to continue the Gates Foundation together, Gates and French Gates announced an additional $15 billion to the foundation's endowment, which had stood at nearly $50 billion. It's the largest private foundation in the world, granting out $5 billion annually for programs in global health, education and other areas.

"It makes sense if somebody is going to leave to do their own thing, it would be Melinda," said David Callahan, the founder of the Inside Philanthropy website and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.

French Gates has raised her profile on women's and girls' issues in recent years. In 2019, she committed $1 billion toward advancing gender equality in the U.S., citing the low rates of women in leadership positions. She was also one of the speakers at last week's U.N. Women's Generational Equality Forum, where the Gates Foundation made a $2.1 billion, five-year pledge to advance gender equality.

"You could easily imagine her going off and starting a new philanthropic enterprise that's focused on gender equity and women's empowerment, that's very different than the Gates Foundation," Callahan said. "But it's hard to imagine Bill Gates starting his own thing outside the Gates Foundation because much of what he's interested in is what the Gates Foundation does."

Questions about the sustainability of the foundation swirled after Gates and French Gates announced in May that they were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. The declaration stunned many, including Suzman, who heard about the divorce about 24 hours before it was made public.

"It's clearly a surprise when the two people whose name is on the building, and who are my bosses, announce they're getting divorced," he said. "I think it was a surprise to the foundation staff. But I think we've all been adjusting."

The foundation has also faced scrutiny following recent allegations that Gates pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft, the company he co-founded, and at the foundation. Microsoft decided last year that it wasn't appropriate for Gates to sit on its board as they investigated the billionaire's prior romantic relationship with a female Microsoft employee that was deemed inappropriate. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has said that it is not investigating the allegations in the media made by "an anonymous former employee."

Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda French Gates before being awarded the Legion of Honour on April 21, 2017, in Paris. Kamil Zihnioglu, Pool/AP Photo