(Bloomberg) -- Melinda French Gates was one of the last people Richard Reeves expected to offer him $20 million. After all, French Gates is an advocate for women and girls and Reeves is the founder of the American Institute for Boys and Men.

But earlier this month, around when French Gates announced she was leaving the Gates Foundation with a fresh $12.5 billion in tow, Reeves and 11 others received an email that seemed too good to be true: She offered them each $20 million, no strings attached, to give to the charities of their choice. 

“My honest reaction on getting that communication was one of confusion, followed by doubt, followed by delight,” said Reeves, whose email came from a representative of French Gates’ organization Pivotal Ventures. Reeves has never met the billionaire. 

“You’re sort of checking that the font size doesn’t change halfway through, or what the IP address is,” he said.

French Gates’ new project — $240 million in total to be distributed by the 12 individuals — is a sharp pivot from the type of philanthropy she’s been doing for more than two decades at the Gates Foundation, which she founded in 2000 with her ex-husband, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. With $75 billion in assets, the Gates Foundation is one of the biggest in the world, but it’s also a bureaucracy that leaves little room for creative giving. 

French Gates’ shift, detailed in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this week, is a welcome change for people who work in the nonprofit world. They’re hoping her decision to step down from the foundation is a signal that she’ll follow a path similar to MacKenzie Scott, who became a philanthropic trailblazer after divorcing Amazon.com Inc. co-founder Jeff Bezos in 2019.

“Philanthropy has long been overdue for a disruption,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and chief executive officer of IllumiNative, a nonprofit that focuses on the perception and power of Native American peoples. Echo Hawk is one of the 12 French Gates fundees. 

“It’s been exciting to see what MacKenzie first, leading the way, and then Melinda are doing to create new opportunities and bring new voices and entities to the table,” she said.

Unconditional Gifts

The list of 12 includes former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Olympic athlete Allyson Felix, a feminist economist, two men who run nonprofits focused on men, and nonprofit leaders working with women and girls in Kenya, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Each will get a donor-advised fund with $20 million that they’ll have two and a half years to figure out how to spend. There are almost no restrictions on how and where they give: They can use up to $5 million for their own nonprofits, but the rest is bound by a clause prohibiting conflicts of interest, according to interviews with half of the recipients. 

The gifts are part of $1 billion in new spending that French Gates has committed to distribute over the next two years. Of that, $250 million will go to organizations working on women’s mental and physical health that apply for grants through an open call. She has committed another $200 million to organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.  

French Gates’ decision to hand money to people whose work she admires is a unique way to give away her fortune, which stands at $13.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That’s on top of the $12.5 billion she’ll receive for her own charitable purposes as she leaves the Gates Foundation — part of an agreement with her ex-husband, who she divorced in 2021.

It puts her in a class of modern women philanthropists, including Scott, who’ve explored new ways of philanthropic giving.

Since her split from Bezos, Scott has donated more than $16.5 billion to a wide range of small, often-overlooked charities — a huge amount of money, even for one of the richest people on the planet. (Her net worth stands at $37.7 billion — more than when they first divorced despite her best efforts to give away money faster than Amazon stock makes it for her.) 

Like French Gates’ $20 million gifts, Scott’s checks sometimes came out of the blue — so much so that emails announcing the donations got stuck in spam folders, or were assumed to be phishing scams.

‘It’s Breathtaking’

French Gates isn’t the only philanthropist who’s given money to others to donate as they choose. Bezos’ annual Courage and Civility Award gifts as much as $100 million to a recipient who gives it away to a charity or charities of their choice within 10 years. But, unlike Bezos’ recipients — most of whom are celebrities and at least two of whom are friends with the billionaire — many of the people French Gates chose have spent their careers doing work and research related to their small nonprofits’ missions. 

“I just remember seeing the email with the information in it and just kind of losing it,” said Alfiee Breland-Noble, who founded the nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, which works with young people from diverse backgrounds on mental health. “Honestly, it’s breathtaking.”

AAKOMA had less than $3 million in assets in 2022, according to its latest tax form. Breland-Noble said many grassroots charities operate on shoestring budgets and even $25,000 would be a huge gift for them. “How many times do you have to multiply that to get to $20 million?” she said. 

Philanthropy directed to women and girls typically makes up a small fraction of overall giving, something French Gates highlighted in her Times op-ed. Jacqueline Ackerman, interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said that in 2020 only $8.8 billion went to women’s and girls’ causes, just 1.8% of overall giving for the year. 

Breland-Noble said she hopes the kind of giving Scott and French Gates are doing will inspire others to look beyond the typical approach of big philanthropy in favor of something that puts more trust in the people doing the work on the ground. 

“They’re demonstrating to people that there’s a way to do this and you have these tremendous, fabulous outcomes when you allow people who are in the trenches to do what they’re trained to do,” she said.

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