Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates’s divorce is shaping up to have a more profound impact on their $50 billion foundation than they previously projected.

The ex-couple insisted when they announced their split in May that little would change at the sprawling philanthropy. Yet Wednesday brought a remarkable turn of events: Along with committing another $15 billion to the endowment and announcing a plan for new trustees, the pair also laid bare that they may not be able to work together in the future—raising the possibility French Gates will exit.

“Gates and  French Gates are fully committed to continuing to work constructively together at the foundation,” the organization said in a statement. “However, they have also agreed to an additional step to ensure the continuity of the foundation’s work: if after two years either decides they cannot continue to work together as co-chairs, French Gates will resign her position as co-chair and trustee.”

If she departs, French Gates, 56, will receive money from Gates for her philanthropic work that’s separate from the foundation’s endowment, according to the statement. It didn’t specify an amount.

It’s been a rocky couple of months for the Gateses since the divorce announcement, including reports of infidelity and long-simmering tensions between the two. Now the prospect of a split at the foundation—which either side can decide—gives the Microsoft Corp. co-founder the upper hand in the future of the philanthropic engine that they built together over the better part of their 27-year marriage.

“It makes an already volatile situation even more volatile,” said Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. “The hint that Melinda French Gates has basically created an escape hatch for herself creates a level of uncertainty about the governance structure that’s going to persist until that’s resolved.”

Significant Changes
Even if French Gates doesn’t leave, the other changes coming to the foundation are significant.

The new trustees, to be announced in January, will represent a shift from the board’s longtime set-up of having only a handful of members made up of friends and family. At the time of the divorce announcement, the trustees were Gates, French Gates and Warren Buffett. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. billionaire said last month that he was stepping down.

By comparison, the Ford Foundation, which is roughly a fifth as large as the Gates Foundation, has 15 members on its board. The Rockefeller Foundation, at a 10th of the size, has no fewer than 12 at any time.

If the foundation begins operating with less power focused in the namesake founders’ hands, “that would be an enormous change for how the foundation is run,” said Soskis, whose organization has received funding from the Gates Foundation. “A lot of that will depend on how well Bill and Melinda are able to function as co-parents, in a way.”

The trustee search process will be led by Mark Suzman, the foundation’s chief executive officer, and Connie Collingsworth, the operating and legal chief, according to the statement. They will develop recommendations for the number of trustees and the selection process, and provide advice on the new members’ oversight roles.

While Suzman is CEO, it’s ultimately the trustees who set the course for philanthropic foundations. The divorce announcement sparked a conversation in the philanthropic world about the small size of the Gates Foundation’s board and that it was made up only of its living donors, who can have an outsize role in determining where their money goes. That’s not always for the best, critics argue.

“The idea that rich people know best about social welfare is just ludicrous,” said Linsey McGoey, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation at the University of Essex and author of a book about the Gates Foundation, “No Such Thing as a Free Gift.”

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