MacKenzie Scott stepped out of the long shadow of her former husband, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by handing out billions of dollars in grants over the past two years to charities, community colleges, food banks and progressive nonprofits led by people of color.
Advising her was a team of consultants at a firm that is hardly known outside philanthropic circles but highly influential within them, the Bridgespan Group.
Spun out of the consulting firm Bain & Company as a nonprofit, Bridgespan is one of a host of groups that arose in the early 2000s as a new wave of giving led by tech billionaires was beginning to crest. Two decades later, the consultants working behind the scenes are more important than ever.
Ms. Scott pulled back the curtain a bit in June when, among the 286 groups receiving more than $2.7 billion in donations, were a host of organizations that are basically the plumbing and wiring of the nonprofit world. Among them were the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Charity Navigator and Bridgespan itself, which said it would use its gift mainly to pursue research meant to benefit the sector as a whole.
spreadsheet of gifts and a full-blown foundation with offices on Fifth Avenue.
“Bridgespan occupies a unique perch in the landscape of professional-services organizations serving foundations and high-net-worth families,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. Mr. Walker, who has worked with Bridgespan since he was with the Abyssinian Development Corporation two decades ago, said no firm had been more influential in the past 20 years.
When a group of billionaires and scholars gathered last year to brainstorm reforms for the charitable sector, they met at Bridgespan’s offices in New York. When the Open Society Foundations, by most measures the second-biggest foundation in the United States after Gates, recently began a significant restructuring, it brought in Bridgespan. And, of course, there is Ms. Scott, who shook up the world of philanthropy with donations of more than $8 billion in 11 months.
But some philanthropy experts say relying on consultants can skew which groups get the most funding. “Consultants at places like Bridgespan are setting the menu of what philanthropists can and should do,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy and scholar of philanthropy at the University of Michigan. “The organizations that are stamped with the managerial brand are more likely to get funding.”
Bridgespan was started in 2000 by three men with ties to the for-profit management consultant Bain & Company, including Bain’s then-worldwide managing partner Thomas Tierney. The founders received $1.3 million from the consulting firm and $5.5 million from a group of foundations to see if a dedicated nonprofit could do a better job than for-profit consultants dabbling in pro bono work.
Bridgespan got its start during an era of “venture philanthropy” and “philanthrocapitalism.” In essence, the billionaires knew best and they were going to bring their vaunted analytic practices to the world of nonprofits. A whole crop of groups came up at around the same time, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Center for Effective Philanthropy and the consultants FSG among them. (All received funding from Ms. Scott in her last round of giving.)
Bridgespan itself received a gift from Ms. Scott. Bridgespan’s latest tax filing for the year 2020 showed contributions and grants leaping to $74.7 million from $12.5 million the year before, nearly doubling the group’s total assets as of the end of last year. Bridgespan said the increase reflected a five-year capital campaign with multiple donors and not just Ms. Scott’s grant.
Giving away money used to be approached as a distinct enterprise from making money. The strategies, language and reams of analytics do not always translate to the nonprofit world, where “return on investment” could be harder to quantify.
“We were getting into bidding wars. ‘I can serve 500 kids for a million dollars.’ ‘I can serve 500 kids for $400,000,’” said Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone and one of Bridgespan’s first clients. He said he found his initial encounter with the group “predictably demeaning — they come in, lay out charts, don’t give you the chance to answer back.”
What was different from other firms his nonprofit worked with, he said, was Bridgespan took his “brutally honest” feedback to heart. In turn, they persuaded him to abandon the bidding wars and ask for more money, trusting the donors to respect his candor.
Attitudes toward billionaire philanthropy shifted after the Great Recession, with populists on the left and right more suspicious of the ultrawealthy. Yet management consulting for philanthropists and nonprofits continued to thrive. That is partly because the pie keeps growing.
From 2000 to 2018, assets held by private foundations more than doubled, according to the research group Candid, to $950 billion from $421 billion. Total giving tripled over the same period, the most recent for which complete data is available, rising to $72 billion from $23 billion, according to Candid, which also received a grant from Ms. Scott.
Instead of establishing big foundations, many of the richest Americans now want to use limited-liability companies, like Laurene Powell-Jobs, and donor-advised funds, which Ms. Scott has used for some of her gifts.
“Bridgespan seems exceptionally able and well-disposed to take advantage of the shift from big family foundations to L.L.C.s that don’t want staff but are still giving away a huge sum of money,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.
Groups like Bridgespan can also step into the gap and serve as outsourced staff for new foundations finding their footing.
In March, the recently formed Asian American Foundation had just five full-time employees. After the killing of eight people at Atlanta-area spas, six of Asian descent, the group was inundated with pledges and commitments, including millions more from prominent board members including Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, and a further $1 billion committed to their cause by foundations, corporations and individuals in an eight-week period.
Mr. Hussein of Bridgespan served as an informal adviser, joining calls with board members.
The foundation brought on a team from Bridgespan full time over the summer. “My ask of them was understanding what is happening in the field and what are things we should be paying attention to. Where were the gaps?” said Sonal Shah, the foundation’s president. The Bridgespan team provided a thorough analysis of Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations in the United States.
“I think it was over a four-week period, which is not a small thing to do in a month,” Ms. Shah said.
Ms. Shah said she appreciated the fact that the team from Bridgespan was staffed fully with people of Asian descent. Mr. Hussein said that was intentional. He drew from Bridgespan’s internal affinity group, people with “firsthand experience of what it means to be othered, what it means to have the model minority myth,” Mr. Hussein said.
That was not the case in the group’s early days, said Mr. Walker, of the Ford Foundation.
“When I first met Bridgespan, it was primarily white men at the top and that’s not a surprise given their origin,” Mr. Walker said. “I had a Zoom call with the Bridgespan team on a matter last spring and a majority of the people on the little Hollywood Squares on the Zoom were people of color and women.”
Bridgespan’s self-reported diversity figures show two-thirds of the group’s staff are women. White people make up less than half of the overall staff, as well as less than half of those in leadership positions.
Both Mr. Walker and Jeff Bradach, one of Bridgespan’s founders, used the word “journey” to describe the group’s embrace of diversity and inclusion as central tenets of the work. Mr. Bradach, who was managing partner until October, when he stepped down from the top post, stressed in an interview that this was still a work in progress and that Bridgespan had made mistakes in the past.
For instance, one of Bridgespan’s big pushes was for donors to make “big bets” rather than spreading the money around. But that standard tends to favor big institutions. “If in your criteria, you say, ‘We only fund people that do random control trials,’ if you have these barriers to capital on general operating support, then a whole bunch of organizations led by people of color have actually never been given the money to do that,” Mr. Bradach said.
Ms. Scott has made it a priority to give to such previously underfunded groups. But she has no website or headquarters or way to apply for grants, leaving groups scrambling for a way to get on her radar. People in the field noticed, for instance, that Bridgespan has advised the YMCA and Ms. Scott gave grants to YMCA’s across the country last year.
While avoiding directly discussing Ms. Scott’s giving per company policy, Mr. Bradach rejected the notion that nonprofits could work with Bridgespan as a way of getting the attention of the big donors they advise. Mr. Bradach said that just 5 percent of the nonprofits that Bridgespan’s philanthropic clients gave to were also Bridgespan clients.
In that 5 percent of cases, Bridgespan policy is to tell the donor that it also represents the nonprofit. The notion among nonprofits that they could cozy up to Bridgespan and then receive huge sums from Ms. Scott is wrong, Mr. Bradach said, and also betrays a misunderstanding of how much sway Bridgespan has over the donors who seek its help. “It’s not,” he said, “a black box that they’re kind of scratching their head going, ‘I can’t wait to see what comes.’”
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have at times referred to the foundation they established together as their “fourth child.” If over the next two years they can’t find a way to work together following their planned divorce, Mr. Gates will get full custody.
That was one of the most important takeaways from a series of announcements about the future of the world’s largest charitable foundation made on Wednesday by its chief executive, Mark Suzman, overshadowing an injection of $15 billion in resources that will be added to the $50 billion previously amassed in its endowment over two decades.
“They have agreed that if after two years either one of them decides that they cannot continue to work together, Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee,” Mr. Suzman said in a message on Wednesday to employees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If that happened, he added, Ms. French Gates “would receive personal resources from Bill for her philanthropic work” separate from the foundation’s endowment.
The money at stake underscores the strange mix of public significance — in global health, poverty reduction and gender equality, among other important areas — and private affairs that attends any move made by the first couple of philanthropy, even after the announcement of their split. The foundation plans to add trustees outside their close circle, a step toward better governance that philanthropy experts had urged for years.
announced their divorce in May, Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates noted the importance of the work done by the foundation they had built and said they “continue to share a belief in that mission.” In the announcement on Wednesday, each echoed those sentiments.
“These new resources and the evolution of the foundation’s governance will sustain this ambitious mission and vital work for years to come,” Mr. Gates said in a statement.
Ms. French Gates emphasized the importance of expanding the board. “These governance changes bring more diverse perspectives and experience to the foundation’s leadership,” she said in a statement. “I believe deeply in the foundation’s mission and remain fully committed as co-chair to its work.”
In the immediate aftermath of the divorce announcement, it was unclear how they would share control of the institution. Wednesday’s announcement indicated that if they cannot work out their differences, it is the Microsoft co-founder Mr. Gates who will maintain control, as he essentially buys his ex-wife out of the foundation.
Mr. Suzman said he did not know how much Ms. French Gates would get if it came to that. But any payout would most likely be significant.
Ms. French Gates’s name since the divorce was announced. She pursues her own priorities through a separate organization known as Pivotal Ventures. Mr. Gates also has his own group, Gates Ventures.
Less than a year ago, the Gates Foundation was run by Mr. Gates, Ms. French Gates, his father and one of his closest friends, the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett. It was a remarkable concentration of power for one of the most influential institutions in the world, a $50 billion private foundation that works in every corner of the globe.
The restructuring announced Wednesday could begin the process of making the Gates Foundation more responsive to the people its mission aims to help and loosen the grip on the reins that its founders have held for more than two decades.
“We’re trying to do this in a very careful and deliberate manner, thinking for the long term,” Mr. Suzman said in an interview.
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In a larger sense, the planned changes at the Gates Foundation reflect the tensions within philanthropy as a whole — between the wishes of the wealthy, powerful donors who provide the millions and even billions of dollars and the nonprofits using those funds to feed, shelter and treat those in need.
“The problems with the governance predated the separation and divorce just as those problems are an issue with all family foundations,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford.
Two former senior Gates Foundation officials called for an expanded board in an article a few weeks after the divorce announcement, including “a chair who is not the foundation’s C.E.O., founder or a founder’s family member.”
“Given that founders receive a substantial tax benefit for their donations, the assets the board oversees should be regarded as belonging to the public, with the board being held accountable to a fiduciary standard of care,” wrote Alex Friedman, the former chief financial officer, and Julie Sunderland, the former director of the foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund.
The Gates Foundation is trying to fight Covid-19, eradicate polio and reshape the struggle for gender equality, even as its two co-chairs extricate themselves from a 27-year marriage. The foundation has more than 1,700 employees and makes grants in countries around the world. Since 2000, the foundation has made grants totaling more than $55 billion, much of it from Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates, but tens of billions also came from Mr. Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.
Yet, in significant ways, the future of such an influential institution, one that touches the lives of millions of people through its grant recipients, is being decided in a separation agreement between two billionaires.
Mr. Buffett’s announcement last month that he was stepping down as the third trustee of the foundation made clear that the divorce had set significant changes in motion. Mr. Suzman promised at the time that governance changes would be announced this month, with many observers anticipating that a new slate of independent trustees would be revealed.
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Details on what that might look like remained few on Wednesday, with neither names of candidates for the board of trustees nor even the ultimate number of new trustees released. Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates will approve changes to the foundation’s governance structures by the end of the year and the new trustees will be announced in January, according to the statement.
At the center of the impending changes stands Mr. Suzman, a 14-year veteran of the Gates Foundation, who was named chief executive just as the spread of Covid-19 in the United States was becoming apparent. Born in South Africa, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Mr. Suzman served as a correspondent for The Financial Times in London, South Africa and Washington before going to work at the United Nations. He joined the foundation in 2007 to work on global development policy before claiming the top post last year.
Mr. Suzman said in an interview that he had heard that Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates would be divorcing only about 24 hours before the news was announced. He said they had started talking about possible governance changes “almost right away” after that.
He said he was in regular contact with both. “I’m having three-way conversations with them,” Mr. Suzman said. “We’re having regular three-way email exchanges and other discussions.”
He noted that the hands-on leadership of Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates meant the changes will take some time to enact.
“The degree and depth of engagement of our co-chairs and trustees goes significantly beyond what a traditional board does and how it does it,” he said in the interview. “So we’ll need some time to think through how we balance that with the people we bring on board.”
Mr. Suzman will work with Connie Collingsworth, the foundation’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, to handle the process. The final decisions on both the new trustees and the changes to the foundation’s governance documents will be made by Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates. It is a reminder that, at least for now, power remains concentrated in the former couple.
By the time Melinda French Gates decided to end her 27-year marriage, her husband was known globally as a software pioneer, a billionaire and a leading philanthropist.
But in some circles, Bill Gates had also developed a reputation for questionable conduct in work-related settings. That is attracting new scrutiny amid the breakup of one of the world’s richest, most powerful couples.
In 2018, Ms. French Gates wasn’t satisfied with her husband’s handling of a previously undisclosed sexual harassment claim against his longtime money manager, according to two people familiar with the matter. After Mr. Gates moved to settle the matter confidentially, Ms. French Gates insisted on an outside investigation. The money manager, Michael Larson, remains in his job.
On at least a few occasions, Mr. Gates pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to people with direct knowledge of his overtures. In meetings at the foundation, he was at times dismissive toward his wife, witnesses said.
public view, Ms. French Gates was unhappy. She hired divorce lawyers, setting in motion a process that culminated this month with the announcement that their marriage was ending.
a public appearance in 2016.
Long after they married in 1994, Mr. Gates would on occasion pursue women in the office.
In 2006, for example, he attended a presentation by a female Microsoft employee. Mr. Gates, who at the time was the company’s chairman, left the meeting and immediately emailed the woman to ask her out to dinner, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
“If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened,” Mr. Gates wrote in an email, according to a person who read it to The New York Times.
in a column in Time magazine announcing the pledge.
money manager, earning solid returns on the Gateses’ and the foundation’s combined $174 billion investment portfolio through a secretive operation called Cascade Investment. Cascade owned assets like stocks, bonds, hotels and vast tracts of farmland, and it also put the Gateses’ money in other investment vehicles. One was a venture capital firm called Rally Capital, which is in the same building that Cascade occupies in Kirkland, Wash.
Rally Capital had an ownership stake in a nearby bicycle shop. In 2017, the woman who managed the bike shop hired a lawyer, who wrote a letter to Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates.
The letter said that Mr. Larson had been sexually harassing the manager of the bike shop, according to three people familiar with the claim. The letter said the woman had tried to handle the situation on her own, without success, and she asked the Gateses for help. If they didn’t resolve the situation, the letter said, she might pursue legal action.
The woman reached a settlement in 2018 in which she signed a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for a payment, the three people said.
While Mr. Gates thought that brought the matter to an end, Ms. French Gates was not satisfied with the outcome, two of the people said. She called for a law firm to conduct an independent review of the woman’s allegations, and of Cascade’s culture. Mr. Larson was put on leave while the investigation was underway, but he was eventually reinstated. (It is unclear whether the investigation exonerated Mr. Larson.) He remains in charge of Cascade.
published an article detailing Mr. Gates’s relationship with Mr. Epstein. The article reported that the two men had spent time together on multiple occasions, flying on Mr. Epstein’s private jet and attending a late-night gathering at his Manhattan townhouse. “His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing although it would not work for me,” Mr. Gates emailed colleagues in 2011, after he first met Mr. Epstein.
(Ms. Arnold, the spokeswoman for Mr. Gates, said at the time that he regretted the relationship with Mr. Epstein. She said that Mr. Gates had been unaware that the plane belonged to Mr. Epstein and that Mr. Gates had been referring to the unique décor of Mr. Epstein’s home.)
The Times article included details about Mr. Gates’s interactions with Mr. Epstein that Ms. French Gates had not previously known, according to people familiar with the matter. Soon after its publication she began consulting with divorce lawyers and other advisers who would help the couple divide their assets, one of the people said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the timing of her lawyers’ hiring.
The revelations in The Times were especially upsetting to Ms. French Gates because she had previously voiced her discomfort with her husband associating with Mr. Epstein, who died by suicide in federal custody in 2019, shortly after being charged with sex trafficking of girls. Ms. French Gates expressed her unease in the fall of 2013 after she and Mr. Gates had dinner with Mr. Epstein at his townhouse, according to people briefed on the dinner and its aftermath. (The incident was reported earlier by The Daily Beast.)
For years, Mr. Gates continued to go to dinners and meetings at Mr. Epstein’s home, where Mr. Epstein usually surrounded himself with young and attractive women, said two people who were there and two others who were told about the gatherings.
Ms. Arnold said Mr. Gates never socialized or attended parties with Mr. Epstein, and she denied that young and attractive women participated at their meetings. “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy,” Ms. Arnold said.
On at least one occasion, Mr. Gates remarked in Mr. Epstein’s presence that he was unhappy in his marriage, according to people who heard the comments.
Leon Black, the head of Apollo Investments who had a multifaceted business and personal relationship with Mr. Epstein, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The meeting was held at Apollo’s New York offices.
It is unclear whether Ms. French Gates was aware of the latest meetings with Mr. Epstein. A person who recently spoke to her said that “she decided that it was best for her to leave her marriage as she moved into the next phase of her life.”