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Melinda French Gates is lining up to support reproductive rights




Melinda French Gates is lining up to support reproductive rights

Lash week, Melinda French Gates officially left the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a $12.5 billion check from Bill Gates, according to the terms of their divorce. Her departure from the foundation she co-founded in 2000 had been announced in Mayand on Friday she published a suicide note thank everyone who worked with her during her tenure at the foundation.

The move wasn’t all that surprising: In 2021, in the midst of their divorce, she and her husband and co-chair agreed that if they noticed they could no longer work together, she would step out and receive resources from her ex-husband to continue her philanthropic work. The following year, Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman said, in an interview with STATruled out the possibility of French Gates leaving – and yet he found himself wishing he did her good at X on her last day of work.

But if the world’s largest private charitable foundation were to lose a leader, the U.S. would gain a new philanthropic powerhouse — someone who could dramatically move the needle when it comes to reproductive health and women’s rights in the country. “While I have long focused on improving access to contraceptives abroad, in the post-Dobbs era I now feel compelled to support reproductive rights here at home,” French Gates wrote. in an essay from the New York Times about her philanthropic plans. In the US, she has already distributed $200 million in grants to women’s rights and health organizations through Pivotal Ventures, an organization she founded in 2015 to pursue charitable initiatives independent of the Gates Foundation.

“She will be a great counterbalance to a lot of the increasingly conservative things going on, and not just about abortion, but about access to contraceptives,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. at the CUNY Graduate Center. “She has enough money to keep the clinic systems alive, to make sure women have access to some form of care.”

By operating outside the boundaries of the Gates Foundation, French Gates can pursue her priorities with greater impact and open up options she did not have at the foundation. “The Gates Foundation is a bureaucracy, and right now it’s a very well-established bureaucracy. She will have a lot more freedom to go in a lot of different directions,” McCarthy said. “Her primary donation vehicle is Pivotal Ventures, a limited liability company and not a foundation. So she can get involved in political campaigns, she can get directly involved in advocacy,” McCarthy said.

In particular, McCarthy expects French Gates to be directly involved in political campaigns and donations, which is not possible for foundations. “She says in The Moment of Lift [her book published in 2019] that having a group of men in a room alone, without women making policies that affect women, is a form of violence,” she said. “So she wants to get more women into political office, which would have important health implications.”

One of the reasons that using an LLC allows French Gates to be freer and more agile in her charitable giving is that her work won’t receive as much attention. “She has a lot more freedom when she uses an LLC. The problem is that [LLCs] don’t have to be as responsible as foundations. So if you look at what Laurene Powell Jobs is doing with the Emerson Collective, it’s not as transparent as a foundation. I don’t think Gates will go that way, but legally she has the ability to do so,” McCarthy said.

Like MacKenzie Scott, who explored different financing strategies with the billions she has distributed since her divorce from Jeff Bezos, French Gates is expected to test unusual financing strategies. However, she is unlikely to be interested in no-obligation support. “Scott’s grantmaking is very different, it’s a ‘leave it on the sidewalk in the middle of the night’ kind of thing. Scott has made it clear that she believes the real experts are the people who work at the nonprofits – which is amazing, but people don’t make big grants like that,” McCarthy said. “But I think Melinda Gates will be much more goal-oriented and really results-oriented. She knows what she wants to achieve and will do everything she can to achieve it.”

So far, in addition to selecting organizations to build partnerships with, French Gates has done something quite unusual: she distributed $240 million to a group of 12 people including film director Ava DuVernay, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Roberta Gbowee and Native American attorney Crystal Echo Hawk, and each will have the responsibility of selecting organizations and projects to fund. This reflects a mentality that also seemed common at the Gates Foundation awarded outstanding individuals annual.

“We sometimes see this practice through intermediary organizations. But seeing that practice by individuals and a very diverse group of individuals, I think it would be very exciting and interesting to see how that plays out,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the vice president of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy .

“One thing that I think is always important, no matter what types of strategies people use to give, is that research shows that when you partner with organizations or individuals that are very close to or part of the communities that you are trying to serve , you’re more likely to actually build solutions that work,” said Smith Arrillaga, whose organization has done extensive research on the impact of Scott’s unrestricted giving. “That part is really exciting in the sense that we’ve hopefully chosen individuals who really understand the changes communities want to make.”

This will be especially important in the US, McCarthy said, because working with other individuals can help extend French Gates’ impact and raise more money. Unlike the Gates Foundation’s work in developing countries, where the amount of financing offered sometimes exceeded local government investments, philanthropic donations in the domestic context are “still a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of money the federal government invests in all kinds of efforts,” said Smith Arrillaga. “Individuals who have a lot to give can have influence, but ultimately they are trying to partially influence a system that is anyway much bigger than themselves.”

This is true even if French Gates were to pour all her capital into the issue of reproductive rights in the country, McCarthy said. “She is one person, and her success will depend on her ability to build communities,” she said. “You know, $12.5 billion is a lot of money, but even Melinda Gates can’t do it alone.”