How Will Emma Bloomberg Shape Her Family's Philanthropy?

Emma Bloomberg, the oldest daughter of Michael Bloomberg, has never said publicly that she is training herself to help give away one of the world's largest fortunes. And maybe she doesn't think of her career this way.

But it sure looks like she's in training, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. And it would also make a lot of sense. Nearly all of her father's fortune, now estimated at $33.6 billion, is likely to go to philanthropy. But Mike Bloomberg, who is 72, will be lucky if he manages to give away half of his money before he dies, even as he dramatically ramps up his giving to levels that will soon make him the world's second largest philanthropist, right after Bill Gates. (See my article on the "Coming Bloomberg Juggernaut.")

So his daughters are likely to have immense influence in directing how his posthumous fortune is spent. Indeed, they are already having influence over one of the largest streams of philanthropic dollars in the United States, as both Emma and Georgina Bloomberg sit on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which distributed $452 million in 2013. 

Of Bloomberg's two daughters, Emma is the one most serious about philanthropy and public policy, and is already far along in preparing herself to be a major leader in U.S. philanthropy. 

Still in her mid-thirties, Emma Bloomberg has an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School (which she earned jointly), and a degree from Princeton. She spent nearly three years working for New York City government, and then nearly seven years working for the Robin Hood Foundation, the anti-poverty group backed by Wall Street. She left Robin Hood this spring. 

Emma initially worked at Robin Hood for its founder, David Saltzman, but then shifted over to direct the group's strategy practice — helping Robin Hood's grantee do a better job of setting priorities, measuring results, and achieving impact. This kind of strategizing is important at a place like Robin Hood, which gave out $143 million in grants in 2012, and even more important at a mega-foundation like Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Emma Bloomberg's most recent position at Robin Hood was as chief of staff. So unlike most other staffers who work in specific issue areas, Bloomberg has engaged with the full range of what Robin Hood funds, including education, jobs and economic security, and early childhood development. That kind of substantive breadth will be a big asset as she gets more deeply involved in her father's giving.

Education is Emma Bloomberg's biggest passion, and she serves as chair of the national ed group Stand for Children, and is also on the board of Leadership for Educational Equity, a group with close links to Teach for America. The agenda of these two groups suggests that Bloomberg embraces a broad view of how to improve schools, as opposed to focusing narrowly on expanding charter schools and weakening teachers unions, like many ed reformers. 

Also, because Emma Bloomberg has a background in government (and is her father's daughter), she understands the importance of the public sector more than some of the MBA types who populate nonprofits nowadays. As she told Forbes magazine in a 2010 interview:

Philanthropy has its limits. Policy and government are key levers for social change. We need to find ways to be more active and make the world a better place. Some wealthy people in New York have been very generous in wanting to make a difference through philanthropy, but we need to make sure we come at the seemingly intractable problems from all angles. 

This kind of humility about the power of philanthropy, and an understanding that philanthropy is often most effective when it helps redirect the far larger resources of government, is crucial, even for the biggest donors. And better to learn that hard lesson sooner rather than later.

It remains unclear what role Emma Bloomberg will play in Bloomberg Philanthropies, beyond serving on the board. After leaving Robin Hood, she presumably has a lot more time on her hands. But whether that means a stepped-up role in the family foundation remains to be seen. Bloomberg would obviously be a great candidate for a leadership job at any number of education groups, if she decides to go that way. 

But my bet is that we see Emma Bloomberg start to play a much bigger role at Bloomberg philanthropies soon as her father ramps up his giving. In turn, look for major initiatives in BP's education work that Emma helps to shape.