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How to Fix the Gates Foundation

The conflation of the personal and the institutional is a serious problem for all private foundations with living donors. As its founders' divorce exposes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to more intense public scrutiny, it is worth considering how to improve founder-controlled philanthropy.

CODY, WYOMING – Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced, and the world can’t stop talking about it. Ever since the news broke, the press and social media have been abuzz with speculation about what ended their 27-year marriage. Could it have something to do with Bill Gates’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein or the personal behavior of Gates’s money manager? And what will happen to their immense fortune, including their Lake Washington mansion?

Given the Gates’s wealth and status, such tittle-tattle is understandable. But it distracts from the very real risk the couple’s split poses to the lives of millions of people around the world.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a far-reaching, positive global impact. But the way the Gates family has chosen to construct and manage their organization’s $50 billion endowment is far from ideal, with direct implications for planning and investing in programs that take years to implement.

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Correction Jun 1, 2021 08:40UTC

A previous version of this commentary stated that the Gates Foundation was the world's second-largest charitable foundation. It has been corrected to reflect its status as the largest charitable foundation.