Retired UMass prof picked for Melinda French Gates’ $240M women empowerment project




Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2024 7:34 PM

AMHERST — A retired University of Massachusetts economics professor from the School of Public Policy is being awarded $20 million from Melinda French Gates’ philanthropic foundation, money that will go toward advancing women’s power on a global scale.

M.V. Lee Badgett, who formerly directed the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass, is one of 12 leaders across the globe getting equal shares of $240 million from Pivotal Ventures for distribution to nonprofits in support of women’s health and well-being.

“I’m very honored and excited to partner with Melinda French Gates and Pivotal to further equality for women,” Badgett said. “In a nutshell, this opportunity means that I will allocate $20 million in grants to charitable organizations that improve the health and well-being of women.”

In a phone interview Thursday, Badgett said that being selected as a recipient of $20 million to distribute came as a surprise, but that Gates had likely become aware of a program Badgett ran a while back, and she is also the closest of the dozen to the LGBTI+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and others who don’t identify as cis/hereterosexual). Among the others receiving $20 million for distribution are filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Olympic champion sprinter Allyson Felix and former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

On a technical level, Badgett said the award involves Pivotal setting up a donor-advised fund for which she will serve as an adviser. All of the money has to be spent by the end of 2026, and a national philanthropy will do all the paperwork and get in touch with the organizations selected.

“My job is the exciting and fun part: to find the organizations and to make those decisions,” Badgett said.

But Badgett observes some kind of strategy will be needed to identify the organizations to support, adding that with so many factors related to health, including economic well-being, there are many different kinds of organizations and subgroups of women that could be chosen.

“The grant process won’t begin till the fall, so that gives me some time to think through priorities and to develop a grant strategy,” Badgett said.

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The announcement of the partnership with the dozen recipients is part of $1 billion Gates is committing, through 2026, to advancing women’s power. This includes $200 million in grants for U.S. organizations protecting women’s rights, including reproductive freedom, and another $250 million that will be awarded this fall through Lever for Change, to identify organizations working to improve women’s mental and physical health worldwide.

Gates issued a statement on her website providing the reasoning for offering $1 billion. “For too long, a lack of money has forced organizations fighting for women’s rights into a defensive posture while the enemies of progress play offense,” Gates said. “I want to help even the match.”

Since retiring from UMass in January, Badgett has co-founded Koppa: The LGBTI+ Economic Power Lab, an organization that consults on international LGBTI+ economic issues and seeks to create a more equitable global economy for LGBTI+ people “through knowledge, financing and connection.”

While it will take time and attention to figure out how the Gates money is distributed, Badgett said, aside from Koppa, much of her time is currently focused on a book project studying economic empowerment of for LGBTI+ people. As an economist, she is always thinking of ways to make people better off economically, observing that often means better health outcomes and improved lives.

“It lines up with the kind of work I’d been hoping to do with Koppa,” Badgett said.