Why Melinda Gates’ Next Act Is The Future of Philanthropy
By Moira Forbes
“I’m now an incredibly confident giver. I know what I believe in,” says philanthropist Melinda French Gates in an exclusive interview with Forbes. “I know I have so much still to learn, and that actually excites me. I have certain convictions, and I’m living those out through my giving.” After 22 years as co-chair of the Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private philanthropic entity, French Gates is once again shifting the focus of philanthropy as she steps into a new chapter following her divorce from Bill Gates.
The latest endeavor of French Gates isn’t backed by a nine-figure check, but something equally as powerful, her voice. With the mission of making philanthropy more accessible to everyone, French Gates is now distilling her decades of giving experience into empowering individuals to enact change in their own communities. Today, the online learning platform, MasterClass, announced the release of a new class on impactful giving taught by French Gates. Challenging the perception that philanthropy should be relegated to billionaires with big checkbooks, French Gates offers members a roadmap on how anyone can be a giver and make an impact, regardless of their resources. “We all have something to give back, and I think people often don’t think about those other pieces beyond the money,” says French Gates.
From donating time, giving money, or leveraging an area of expertise, French Gates draws on lessons from her personal philanthropic journey to equip viewers with the tools to begin giving. Class chapters dive into the everyday application of giving and offer best practices on everything from identifying actionable goals to accurately measuring progress and leveraging your voice for the greater good.
As a catalyzing force behind The Giving Pledge which inspired billionaires to commit the majority of their wealth to charitable causes, French Gates is now shifting gears to accelerate giving on a grassroots level. Ultimately, French Gates’ MasterClass is about more than inspiring individuals to act. It’s a call to action to make giving more inclusive and to balance philanthropic power in a way that better aligns all stakeholders.
“I’ve learned how important it is to ensure that the people closest to those problems have a role in designing solutions,” said French Gates in her solo Giving Pledge letter, which she updated late last year. “Philanthropists are generally more helpful to the world when we’re standing behind a movement rather than trying to lead our own,” a sentiment that addresses the growing criticism of billionaire philanthropy head-on.
“People are seeking community right now. We’re seeking ways to come together to create change in our communities, in our countries, and in our world. Philanthropy and giving back are an unbelievably great way to do that,” says French Gates. In increasingly divided times, when economic gaps are widening and skepticism around traditional power structures is on the rise, she believes the message behind her MasterClass is more urgent than ever.
Addressing systemic inequities and bringing new voices to the tables of power have been throughlines across French Gates’ work. As she began to chart her own philanthropic course, she realized that one of her greatest personal challenges was also critical to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems: closing gender gaps. “I think the world has always seen gender as kind of a nice thing to do or as a side issue, particularly in male-run institutions. It took me a while to find my stride and to say, “No, no, no. This is actually the central issue.” She was at the philanthropic forefront with this message, first championing women’s empowerment inside the Gates Foundation and later through the launch of Pivotal Ventures, her independent investment company dedicated to advancing gender and social progress.
Speculation remains around the future of the Gates Foundation and its $55 billion endowment, as she and former husband Bill Gates agreed that French Gates would step down as co-chair in 2023 if they decided they could no longer work together. “I think all the evidence I see says that we’ll be able to run the foundation together forever,” Bill Gates told Forbes in a recent interview.
What’s clear is that the might of French Gates’ philanthropic muscle extends far beyond the walls of the world’s largest private foundation. She’s emerged as one of the most transformational givers not solely by means of wealth, but through her relentless commitment to empowering others and her appreciation that true progress can only be achieved when all voices participate in the solution.
“At the end of my life, it’s not really about what I’ve done,” says French Gates. “It’s much more, ‘Was I loved by my family and friends, and did I change the world in some way to make it better for the next generation?’ And I hope to have done that.”