How Melinda French Gates Plans to Spend $1B on Solo Philanthropy Mission

"Once Pivotal Ventures was up and running for three years, I knew I could do this on my own."

Woman with ponytail in light blue dress
Melinda French Gates stepped down from the Gates Foundation three years after her divorce with Bill Gates Mustafa Yaicin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Earlier this year, Melinda French Gates shocked the philanthropic world when she stepped down from the 24-year-old foundation she started with her former husband and Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates. The direction of French Gates’ individual philanthropic goals have since started to take shape, with an initial $1 billion commitment earmarked towards dozens of organizations focused on the rights of women and other underrepresented groups.

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“I was just ready to be able to have full decision-making control about where all the funds go,” French Gates told Time of her decision to depart the foundation in an interview published today (June 18). While her new philanthropic endeavors will be funded with $12.8 billion from Gates and French Gates’ estimated net worth of $11.1 billion—a stark contrast from the $75.2 billion endowment of the Gates Foundation—the philanthropist said she doesn’t “see it honestly as a downsizing.”

The former couple finalized their divorce in 2021 after nearly three decades of marriage and first separated during the early days of Covid-19, an era when the Gates Foundation was overwhelmed by pandemic-related work. “It was a super intense time for us as a foundation,” said French Gates, who later reiterated her belief that the organization is in good hands under Gates and its CEO Mark Suzman.

“People looked to him first when we would enter a room.”

French Gates and Gates initially agreed to a post-divorce trial period co-chairing the foundation that would see French Gates step down if the former couple could no longer work together successfully. While French Gates said her ex-husband would have been willing to “make substantial changes” for her to stay on, she noted that foundation colleagues “knew once I’ve made a decision, I’ve made a decision.”

Her departure was partially inspired by a desire to dedicate more attention to the philanthropic areas she is most passionate about, namely women’s rights. French Gates made a substantial contribution towards that mission back in 2015 when she founded the equality-focused firm Pivotal Ventures, which will now act as her primary vehicle for philanthropic giving. “Once Pivotal Ventures was up and running for three years, I knew I could do this on my own,” she said.

But French Gates didn’t always feel that way. For several years, she lost her voice in both business and philanthropy dealings, she told CBS in a recent interview. “In philanthropy, I’m juggling with a partner whose very strong—strong opinions, strong-minded,” she said of Gates. “People looked to him first when we would enter a room.”

How French Gates plans to spend $1 billion

Going forward, French Gates’ charitable work will kick off with a $1 billion contribution that will see:

  • $200 million dispersed across 10 organizations emphasizing women’s power, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, MomsRising Education Fund and National Domestic Workers Alliance.
  • $240 million is going towards a group of 12 prominent individuals, ranging from filmmaker Ava DuVernay and former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern to gender equality advocate Gary Barker, who can request up to $5 million for their own charitable institutions and will each be given $20 million to distribute across nonprofits improving women’s health.
  • $250 million will be doled out this fall to organizations through an open-call administered by Lever for Change, a nonprofit that hosts charitable challenges and has previously been used by fellow philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

While the two women share a similar trust-based approach towards giving, Scott is more “hands off” with her grantmaking, French Gates told Time. “I try and coalesce a group of organizations around moving something forward,” she added.

French Gates is still not sure what she will do with the remaining $310 million of her initial pledge. But the beneficiaries of the funds, alongside the additional billions she will give over the next few years, are set to be shaped by her passions for female empowerment and reproductive rights. She is particularly eager to support female centrist politicians across local and state governments and push the U.S. towards a federal policy on family medical leave, in addition to advocating for abortion-rights organizations following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“To have a law on the books since I was nine years old, and to have it rolled back, and all the downstream consequences—like those women’s-health deserts now when we already have one of the highest maternal-mortality rates of high-income countries—I can’t not speak up about that,” said French Gates. “To see that my granddaughter will have fewer rights than I do? That doesn’t make any sense.”

How Melinda French Gates Plans to Spend $1B on Solo Philanthropy Mission