News media and tabloids have been focused on the high-profile divorce. We were interested in how divorce impacts a family foundation.
Last week, the tech and media worlds were abuzz with news of the Bill & Melinda Gates divorce. After 27 years of marriage, one of the richest couples in the world decided to call it quits. This was a shock to many outsiders looking in. Their long-term marriage, despite all the trappings of wealth and influence, seemed like it would stand the test of time. The New York Times, in this article, described the two parties as having “reshaped philanthropy and public health,” with the fortune acquired by the couple as a result of Mr. Gates being a co-founder, and past CEO, of Microsoft.
Certainly, when I think of philanthropy, I think of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A well-funded operation run by the couple, in a fight against global health crises. Last year, when COVID-19 invaded every aspect of our lives, Bill Gates was seen on TV and in articles providing guidance on dealing with the pandemic. Through his work at the foundation he had gained significant insight and had been warning of pandemic threats for many years. Bill played such an instrumental role in the process that many people now associate the foundation with public health.
On the home page of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the first thing a visitor sees is the following text: “We are a nonprofit fighting poverty, disease, and inequity around the world.” Much of their philanthropic work takes place in the form of grants. In 2019 alone, the Gates Foundation provided more than $2.7 billion in grants according to their own reporting. The foundation has made grants in the following areas: gender equality, global development, global health and more.
Now that the Gates’ are calling it quits, how will that impact the operations of this massive nonprofit?
Nonprofit attorney and consultant insights
Having little or no experience with nonprofits (more specifically a family foundation) myself, except for my annual contributions, I reached out to one of our consultants, Jess Birken, Esq. Ms. Birken is the owner of the Birken Law Office, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a lawyer who helps nonprofits solve problems so they can focus on what really matters… their mission. Her practice specializes in nonprofit organizations. Before becoming a private practice attorney, Ms. Birken spent four years inside a national nonprofit organization, Pheasants Forever. In that role she managed about $50M in state and federal government grants and worked on hundreds of conservation real estate deals.
In essence, Ms. Birken had the expertise I was seeking. She could answer the questions I had about nonprofit operations in the face of familial separation. For purposes of attribution, I had developed some of my questions from this article by Vox. Ms. Birken used this New York Times article for some of the information about the organizations.
Below, you’ll find my questions and Ms. Birken’s answers:
Nick Rishwain: This matter involves a family foundation. How is a family foundation different from other types of nonprofits?
Jess Birken: Generally, a “family foundation” is completely or mostly funded by one family. The term family foundation isn’t a legal term though, it’s just a way to describe a private foundation with that characteristic. Private foundations in general are different from the nonprofits most people think about when they hear the term “nonprofit.” Most people hear nonprofit, and they are picturing a public charity (like your local church or pet rescue).
Both public charities and private foundations get tax-exempt status and are labeled as 501(c)(3) organizations by the IRS. Both types are established for a charitable purpose and have a mission. Both types can use the word “Foundation” in their title. It can all be a little confusing. The major difference between a private foundation, like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a public charity, like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is where they get their financial support. Public charities raise money from the general public, but a private foundation usually has one source of funding, typically an individual, family, or corporation.
Another key distinction is that private foundations also often differ in their activities. They typically don’t run programs directly – like, say, a soup kitchen serving people experiencing homelessness. Instead, private foundations often make grants to other organizations. A private foundation might make grants to many homeless shelters running many soup kitchens. Other differences between the two include the fact that the board of a private foundation is not required to be diverse (often the board is made up of only family members, etc.); that they are required to make charitable distributions throughout the tax year; and that they must pay a nominal excise tax on their net investment income.
Nick Rishwain: We know divorce can have impacts on businesses and real property, in respect to division of assets. Are nonprofits incorporated in a similar way which would cause a division?
Jess Birken: Generally, no single person owns a nonprofit. Nonprofits do not have shareholders or issue stock and private individuals can’t benefit from them. So, they aren’t an asset that can be split up in a divorce.
Nick Rishwain: In the Vox article, the foundation said, “that the philanthropy did not anticipate changes to its work.” What changes might a divorce cause to a nonprofit?
Jess Birken: Theoretically none. Even a family foundation has a board of directors. These directors have fiduciary duties to carry out the mission and take actions in the best interest of the nonprofit – regardless of any individual board members’ personal life situation.
In the case of a family foundation, however, where the primary funder is the family, then it could be the case that the donations to the foundation that are directly from the family will decrease temporarily (or long term) as the assets of the donor family are apportioned through a divorce proceeding. Whether this happens may be revealed through the upcoming IRS Form 990 filings that show revenue and contributions by donor as part of Schedule B in the years ahead. So, a temporary reduction in activity or some kind of holding pattern (versus expansion) could happen. In the case of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the foundation has net assets forming an endowment of about $50 billion. So, any flux in family contributions is likely to be a minor hiccup for this foundation.
Nick Rishwain: Are nonprofit organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation usually funded year-to-year?
Jess Birken: For accounting purposes the nonprofit accounts for contributions it receives during its accounting year. How frequently donations are made by a family will depend on the family and their philanthropic vision and tax planning needs. I’m not an estate planning expert but it’s probably fair to say that in general donations to family foundations are likely to be calculated annually based on each year’s tax planning situation.
Nick Rishwain: In the above article, Vox indicates the Bill & Melinda Gates divorce might impact their nonprofit foundation. Could a private divorce impact the work or funding of such a large nonprofit organization?
Jess Birken: From the perspective that both parties to the divorce are on the board of directors, that’s certainly possible. As I mentioned before, the assets of the family will be getting a shakeup through the divorce. It’s possible that either Bill or Melinda – once they have completely separate households – will make their own contributions based on their own philanthropic interests.
In this instance, however, it seems their public commitment to the core foundation work is aligned and, in my opinion, probably true. The foundation itself has an endowment of $50 billion to work with – the divorce won’t affect that core fund. So, the interpersonal aspects are more important in this case. Warren Buffet was recently added to the board of directors as a Trustee and is also a contributor. This will likely have a stabilizing effect and may have even been planned for that reason – I’m speculating but it makes sense.
As far as interpersonal problems between the couple causing issues around pushing for one charitable interest over another, this has already been addressed. Each member of the couple already has a fully formed enterprise where they can pursue their individual agendas and those have been in place for some time. Bill Gates has Gates Ventures a company first formed after he stepped down from full time work at Microsoft in 2008. His enterprise focuses on clean energy, climate change, education, and health. Melinda French Gates formed her Pivotal Ventures company in 2015 which works on gender equality and social progress. So, each has an outlet for pursuing their individual goals which likely insulates the foundation’s work even more.
Well there you have it! My questions were answered. If you have more questions about nonprofits and charitable organizations, reach out to Jess Birken at here website: birkenlaw.com. For more information, you may also want to check out her podcast: charitytherapy.show.