Leverage: How Mike Bloomberg Thinks About Philanthropy

Mike Bloomberg gave away $462 million last year, putting Bloomberg Philanthropies just behind the Ford Foundation among giant funders. Yet despite such huge sums going out the door, Bloomberg has barely scratched the surface of a $35 billion fortune, the bulk of which will be given away. Much bigger things lie ahead. 

So when Mike pauses for a moment to explain, in broad strokes, how he thinks about philanthropy, it's a good idea to listen. Closely.

Bloomberg did just that in first Annual Letter, released this week. Its contents offer yet one more reason to be super impressed with Bloomberg's giving. Why? Because Mike understands a simple fact that too many other funders forget: Influencing government is the best way to stretch philanthropic dollars for impact. 

Government has resources and power on a scale that foundations can't match, and so the funders who can direct those public capacities will likely have the most clout. Bloomberg writes: "some still see philanthropy as an alternative to government. I see it as a way to embolden government."

While many funders shirk from advocacy, dreading the taint of partisanship, Bloomberg embraces it as a core strategy. "With political capital always at a premium," he writes, "elected leaders tend to pick their battles. Philanthropy can nudge them into the toughest battles by showing that they're winnable."

Bloomberg Philanthropies is taking this approach with its biggest issues. To curb tobacco deaths worldwide, it's been pushing for anti-smoking laws in developing countries, most notably in China. Along the way, the foundation has gone toe-to-toe with big tobacco companies, as we've recently reported. And herein lies a key point: Corporations don't hesitate to try to influence governments to boost private profits. Why should foundations hold back when they're defending the public interest? 

In the United States, Bloomberg Philanthropies has gone up against the coal industry by supporting the Beyond Coal campaign in partnership with the Sierra Club. Sure the "war on coal" is highly partisan right now, but Democrats and Republicans alike will suffer the consequences of unchecked climate change. And as coal plants get shut down, people of every political stripe will suffer fewer negative health effects of pollution. One of those effects, by the way, is death, and Bloomberg estimates that 5,500 lives annually are already being saved by plant shutdowns in recent years. 

The way Bloomberg keeps numbers like that close at hand underscores another key point about him: While he's not afraid of a fight, he's no ideologue. Rather, he's a technocrat, and looks to data to drive his decisions and measure progress. Which is a reminder that advocacy doesn't necessarily have anything to do with ideology and partisanship, as other funders tend to fear. 

Bloomberg's technocratic approach does have its limits. What's missing from this funder's worldview is any real articulation of values. The mantra of Bloomberg philanthropy"what works"is different than a normative vision of what's right and why. While we know the outcomes that Bloomberg thinks are best—saving lives needlessly lost to smoking or traffic deaths, for example—nowhere do he and his foundation say why these goals are paramount, at some deeper level. Certainly they don't offer a defense of the libertarian critique of nanny liberalism, which is that protecting the value of freedom should trump other goals, even saving lives. 

As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg used vast data to track the many improvements his administration made to the city. But what he couldn't grasp, seemingly, is how morally offensive the city seemed to many ordinary residents during his years in office, as inequality grew more flagrant. His philanthropy could run into the same problem at some point, as Bloomberg solves specific problems in a mechanical way while missing more nuanced challenges to the human spirit and condition. 

The annual letter says that Bloomberg Philanthropies "leads from the front" to "tackle controversial issues." In fact, though, many of the issues it works on are anything but controversial. Curbing smoking deaths may be contentious if Philip Morris is part of the conversation, but it's been an accepted goal of public health policy in developed countries for decades. And how many smart people really think that burning up more coal is a good idea or that Brazilian drivers shouldn't wear seat belts?

If the foundation does wade into stickier issues, or face stronger attacks, it will want to have a more robust set of values to guide its work. 

One other caveat about Bloomberg philanthropy: Yes, advocacy is the best way to make change, but we can't ignore how unnerving such efforts are. Most of us are all for philanthropists backing advocacy when we agree with their goals. It's a scarier thing when we don't. (See: Koch brothers.)

In praising Bloomberg's efforts to push government, I'm mindful of the obvious counterargument that says maybe we don't want one of the richest men in America to deploy his money to shape public policies that really should be set by the citizens of this planet's oldest democracy. 

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