Bloomberg’s $50 million donation to Boston’s Museum of Science is a personal thank you from a lifelong fan who's ramping up his efforts to dispose of an historic fortune. It also reflects the donor’s staunch belief that data-driven analysis can improve the world.
We’ve jokingly called Michael Bloomberg the "Spock of Philanthropy," seemingly informed by an unseen Philanthrotron 5000 that crunches numbers and spits out the most pragmatic priorities for his grant dollars. Whether it’s smoking, obesity, coal plants, or traffic deaths, Bloomberg’s philanthropic causes are united by data that identifies low-hanging fruit, issues that the former New York mayor’s billions can perceptibly impact.
Bloomberg’s calculated approach to improving the world seems to have found its roots while spending Saturday afternoons as a kid at Boston’s Museum of Science. To return the favor, Bloomberg Philanthropies is donating $50 million, the largest gift in the 186-year-old museum’s history, to endow its education division and increase its overall endowment by 40 percent. Notably, rather than backing construction of a shiny new wing or building—a practice that has come under fire for contributing to unsustainable growth at museums—endowment support will back educational programming on an ongoing basis. The gift will fund the work of museum educators, exhibits, events, teacher development, and creation of curriculum and activities.
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This is Bloomberg’s fourth gift to the institution, as he’s also backed a planetarium renovation, internships, and other improvements. This is clearly a personal gift for Bloomberg, who grew up just outside of Boston and was profoundly influenced by lectures he’d attend at the museum.
But before we get all weepy over childhood memories, it’s interesting to note that Bloomberg credits the Museum of Science with inspiring his analytical approach to life.
In his autobiography, he wrote of what he took away from the museum: “Listen, question, test, think... Those instructors taught me the value of intellectual honesty and scholarship years before college.”
He’d go on to earn an engineering degree and make a fortune supplying data to Wall Street before becoming a mayor and philanthropist known for fact-driven pragmatism.
So while it’s a show of appreciation, Bloomberg also hopes the gift will lead others to embrace a similar scientific mindset.
Note that the $50 million gift supports curriculum and activities in “computational thinking/computer science” and, related to another of Bloomberg’s causes, food science, which he said he’d like to see catch on at other museums.
In an interview about the gift, Bloomberg stressed the importance of scientific literacy among the general public, citing the current presidential election and political inaction on climate change as consequences of people not understanding the “science of what’s at stake.”
All of this sounds like Bloomberg’s STEM giving is less motivated by the common target of inspiring future scientists (although that is definitely in the mix) and more about inspiring people to embrace a more scientific, more Bloomberg way of thinking. It sounds awfully similar, in fact, to another approach to science education that landed one STEM advocate a major award recently.
So there’s certainly a big personal motivation behind this big gift—he did ask the education center to be named after his parents, after all. But it also tells us just a little more about what shaped Bloomberg the philanthropist we know today—one who investigates, weighs the facts, and always, even with personal gifts, makes the practical decision.
Finally, let's not forget an all-important fact about Bloomberg's giving: He needs to step it up. With a $43 billion fortune, the 74-year-old Bloomberg has to get money out the door much more quickly if he wants to dispose of a large share of his wealth in his lifetime. At the rate Bloomberg has been giving lately—about a half-billion dollars a year—it would take him 40 years to give away just half that money. One way to get the gravy train moving faster is to make bigger gifts to places he already knows and loves.
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