This Wednesday, private planes and caravans will shepherd dozens of the world’s most financially successful people to a luxury resort north of Los Angeles for a conference that you will never hear anything about. Until Thursday night, on the grounds of an Ojai, California hideout, Bill and Melinda French Gates will hold court as they have for the last ten years atop the Giving Pledge, the network of 200-plus luminaries whom the Gateses have recruited to join them in philanthropy and who gather, once a year, at elite retreats like this one.
The annual gathering of The Giving Pledge is a fascinating window into the arts and science of big-dollar donations. The Pledge was launched back in 2010 by Bill, Melinda and Warren Buffett with an ask for people with more than $1 billion in net worth to publicly commit to donate more than half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime or in their wills, and attendees look forward to the yearly celebrations. But much has changed since the Gates and Buffett fan club last gathered in-person in the late spring of 2019. Obviously there was the pandemic, which placed Bill Gates at the height of his powers and influence as a public intellectual, on television seemingly every day in the early weeks of Covid, dispensing pearls of public-health wisdom. The Foundation spent considerable time over the last two years pondering the role that it should play during the crisis, and just how hard to push other donors to respond to a once-in-a-century call-to-arms moment for philanthropy. “We are excited to offer this private, confidential event once again for pledge signatories to learn from each other and reconnect after several years of virtual-only engagement,” read this year’s invitation to signers that someone passed to me.
There have, of course, also been more personal developments. Bill and Melinda French Gates—the mom and dad of this group, whose cult of personality inspired so many of the Giving Pledge commitments, as many recount gushingly in their pledge letters—are now divorced, allowing the annual gathering to become a partial glimpse into their post-nuptial relations. The divorce has had the potential to throw the Foundation into crisis, although I think the consequences of the rupture have been overstated. Still, one person close with Gates world and with some attendees of this week’s event told me they anticipated “a lot less enthusiasm about hanging out with Bill” given all of the unpleasantness that was aired during the divorce, including details about Gates’ past association with Jeffrey Epstein. “The Bill and Melinda thing is a real dynamic… Is it weird? Is it not?” said another person close to the event. “This is just the start of that weird unraveling, or one step in the journey that’s clearly coming.” For now, however, their joint attendance sends the clear message that there is nothing to see here—an important statement given how much of the Pledge’s success depends on public support for the Gateses.