‘Alimony is not necessary’: How billionaire women are reshaping philanthropy


“Spousal support is not necessary.” The five words on Melinda Gates divorce Last week’s petition was an understatement for a woman with billions of dollars in her own name and a claim over Bill Gates’ $ 130 billion fortune at Microsoft.

They could also serve as currency for a growing group of women whose independent giving is transforming American philanthropy.

Details of the Gates’ separation agreement remain private, although in the days following the divorce filing, Bill’s holding company stock transferred worth over $ 2 billion to Melinda.

While the couple will continue to lead the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together, he manages less than half of Bill’s fortune, raising the prospect of further wealth transfers making Melinda a greater philanthropic force in its own right.

There is no single model for the new class of female megadonors among which they already occupy the largest place. There are those whose divorces have made the headlines (notably MacKenzie Scott’s $ 38 billion with Jeff Bezos) and others are widowed in the prime of their lives, such as Laurene Powell Jobs, Julia Koch and Sheryl Sandberg.

MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropic team scanned data from 6,500 organizations and interviewed hundreds before choosing 384 grantees © Evan Agostini / Invision / AP

Mark Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan is among those who have shared equal billing with their spouses since their first foray into high-octane giving. And there are a growing number of people whose wealth comes from their own entrepreneurship rather than from a husband or ancestor.

Together, they move female philanthropy away from its associations with pearl-clad socialites and gala dinners, heralding demographic and strategic changes that charities are scrambling to respond to.

The growth in women’s giving partly reflects the growth in their wealth. Women control a third of global assets, by BCG estimates, and accumulate more at an accelerated rate. But those working in the field say that the best-known benefactors inspire others to follow their example.

Scott blew up donor lists last year by giving away $ 5.7 billion – just behind her ex-husband. Even more surprising than the money at stake is how she spent it, says Andrea Pactor, former director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.

“[It] was so public that I think it’s a pivotal point and it will change the way women, and I hope men too, think about what they give, ”she says.

In just four months, Scott’s team scanned data from 6,500 organizations, interviewing hundreds of them before choosing 384 recipients working on everything from food banks to education.

“McKenzie Scott’s strategies reverberate through philanthropy, forcing institutions that give a lot of project grants to step back and ask themselves ‘how do we do this’?” says Jacob Harold, executive vice president of Candid, which studies foundations and nonprofits.

What emerges, he says, is that his approach “was deeply based on trust,” involving less intrusive due diligence that many foundations insist on, and it was unsolicited and unconstrained grants to companies. relatively low-profile charities and not elite institutions.

The spotlight on Scott and Gates has a “ripple effect” on other women, Pactor says. But it would be wrong to draw too close a parallel between them, warns Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Gates has been a co-chair of the Gates Foundation for two decades, while Scott (like Bezos) is new to the list of major donors.

Priscilla Chan was instrumental in pioneering the use of limited liability companies in philanthropy © Getty Images

Still, as these women make these lists more diverse, Buchanan says he hopes we’ll see “fewer top-down thoughts, the better that companies know who gets them in trouble sometimes.”

Research from the Pactor Institute suggests that men and women have different philanthropic styles and different motivations for giving.

However, Brooklyn Law School professor Dana Brakman Reiser says generational factors may play a bigger role than gender. Gates is only 56, a year younger than Jobs. Scott and Sandberg are 51 and Chan only 36.

“Philanthropy seems to go from something you do in retirement to something you do while you build your empire, while you raise your family,” she notes.

Young donors are More interested by combining philanthropy and impact investing, and more likely to use limited liability companies and donor-advised funds, which are more flexible and private than foundations.

Younger donors such as Jobs and Chan, who pioneered the use of LLCs, are announcing “an account with the tools of philanthropy,” says Brakman Reiser.

When the University of California, Los Angeles started a program to promote women philanthropists 25 years ago, female donors were supposed to play a supporting role.

“They felt like, ‘I’m the one making the donations: it’s my check, my husband’s name isn’t even on it and [yet] the thank you note. . . comes back to him ”, remembers Melissa Effron Hayek, who directs the program.

But the campus has since seen a pronounced shift towards women giving on their own, and a less ‘transactional’ quality of their giving, Effron Hayek says, “Women give for different reasons. It is not necessary to have their name on the building. . . They want to get involved and feel the impact of their donations. “

Kathleen Loehr, who advises charities on attracting female donors, emphasizes Scott’s desire for impact, rigorous research and focus on values, emblematic of how women give differently.

Many female donors find the word “philanthropist” paternalistic and at odds with their desire to associate with the groups they support, she says. They also give more for causes many men overlook, such as tackling income inequality and promoting other women and girls.

In this, Gates is also a role model. Whatever she does next, without the support of a spouse, she has already inspired her fellow donors, Effron Hayek says, “Melinda Gates is our spirit animal.”



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