Get ready for one of the biggest giving sprees in U.S. history, starting the moment Michael Bloomberg turns over City Hall to Bill de Blasio.
Now, you may think that since Bloomberg has already been giving away over $300 million annually in recent years, it will be hard to ratchet things up much further in a rapid way. But there'd you be wrong. Bloomberg has been quietly beefing up his philanthropic infrastructure for a while now, with Bloomberg Philanthropies sharpening its program goals, adding staff, rolling out a new website, and otherwise getting ready to pick up the tempo.
More importantly, if you look closely at the approach of that foundation, you'll see that this is an operation that will have no problem spending more money -- a lot more -- very quickly. Historically, Bloomberg Philanthropies has tended to make giant grants to advance the causes that Bloomberg cares about most, such as reducing smoking worldwide (where it made a new $220 million commitment in 2012) or climate change (where it has committed $50 million to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign).
What Bloomberg Philanthropies has never been is a staff-heavy outfit with teams of program officers debating where to direct $100,000 grants. And while it may head more in that direction as it expands and professionalizes, it is likely to remain a place that moves very big money out the door to heavyweight NGOs. It will be easy to start adding a few zeroes to these gifts.
But why should we expect an intense flurry of giant grants starting early next year? For a few reasons.
First, Bloomberg will want to signal to the world that he remains an important player even though he is no longer mayor of the largest U.S. city. That's not just human nature, it's strategically important: It will make him a must-see person for big thinkers with big projects, creating new opportunities for Bloomberg Philanthropies to forge partnerships and have impact.
Second, Bloomberg will personally have a lot more time on his hands to think about his giving. And while he'll be based at Bloomberg Media, he's said that his main post-mayoral focus will be philanthropy. If Bloomberg can give away over $300 million a year on top of his day job at City Hall, just imagine what he can manage with greater bandwidth.
Third, this is a guy with a lot of interests and areas where he'd like to make an impact. Beyond the areas he's already given big, he's interested in government innovation, immigration, and gun control. If Bloomberg starts writing the kinds of checks in these areas that he's written for anti-smoking work or road safety, his giving would leap overnight.
Fourth, the clock is now ticking in terms of giving away his fortune, which currently stands at $31 billion. While Bloomberg isn't trying to spend down before his death -- both his daughters have been groomed for a leadership role in the foundation -- he'll at least want to make a big dent in that pile during the years he has left. And, as a public health wonk, Bloomberg will know that, at age 71, statistically he may have a decade or less. Simple math suggests that Bloomberg would have to give away roughly $1.5 billion a year if he wanted to personally oversee the disposal of half his fortune before he's deep in the mortality danger zone a decade from now. All the more reason to hit the ground running the day after he turns things over to de Blasio.
So here's my prediction: Bloomberg will roughly triple his annual giving in 2014, to nearly $1 billion a year, and then keep escalating from there until he gets to $1.5 billion, where he will hold. That will make him the second biggest philanthropist in the world, after Bill Gates.
Of course, it's entirely possible that Mike Bloomberg won't be satisfied with being number two.