The only time I ever saw Michael Bloomberg speak, my attention soon wandered as he droned on in that wonky way of his, and I didn't stick around to hear his whole speech. We New Yorkers always knew that any talk of a Bloomberg presidential bid was a pipe dream.
On the other hand, when it comes to philanthropy, boring can be a huge asset. Whereas many billionaires are drawn to the hardest problems or the trendiest causes, Bloomberg operates more like a utilitiarian robot when deciding where to put his biggest money—crunching the numbers to figure out how his philanthropic dollars can do the most good.
The two biggest causes he has invested in over the years have been reducing tobacco use and improving traffic safety. Neither of these issues registers much in the glittery precincts of the philanthrosphere, but Bloomberg has picked two real winners.
Smoking kills 6 million people worldwide every year, which is far more than AIDS and malaria put together. That number is projected to rise to 8 million by 2030. A funder who bends this curve even slightly can save untold lives, which is why Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions of dollars here.
Same goes for road safety, where the body count is also huge: One million people dead annually from accidents and tens of millions injured.
What's so appealing about these two issues is that bending the curve on both is anything but rocket science. You don't need to fund brilliant researchers to find some elusive cure; you just need to help developing countries implement the proven solutions that have already worked in the wealthy world to greatly reduce deaths.
In short, we're talking about low-hanging fruit here.
Bloomberg Philanthropies got into traffic safety in 2010, and went big in trademark fashion, committing $125 million to reduce road deaths in some of the largest countries in the world. That funding helped to leverage lots of local money for infrastructure improvements and underwrote traffic safety training and public education efforts. Some of the targeted countries also passed the kind of no-brainer laws that the United States has long had, like seatbelt mandates and prohibitions on drinking and driving.
Clearly, Mike liked what he saw, since Bloomberg Philanthropies today announced it would pump another $125 million into its Global Road Safety initiative over the next five years.
The foundation is doing things differently this time around, and is inviting proposals from cities in developing countries through a competitive grantmaking process:
The proposals cities submit will detail how they plan to address road safety by applying solutions to a number of challenges including improving pedestrian and cyclist safety, enhancing laws to combat drinking and driving and speeding as well as encouraging the use of motorcycle helmets, seat-belts and child restraints.
Boy, does that all sound familiar. Most these preventive steps are basic things that Americans have come to take for granted, greatly reducing our own road deaths since the Mad Men era.
Here's to extending the American nanny state worldwide!
As usual, Bloomberg Philanthropies will be working with some high-powered partners to move its big money out the door. You can see the list near the end of the press release.