Deep Dive: Two of America’s Wealthiest Philanthropists Are Teaming Up to Protect the Oceans

 photo: Mike H/shutterstock

photo: Mike H/shutterstock

Ocean conservation has emerged as a favored cause among finance and tech mega-donors alike, and it’s an issue as wide-ranging as, well, the ocean. That’s true for the vast amount of need in the field, and for the varied approaches of philanthropists.  

Take, for example, Michael Bloomberg and Ray Dalio. These two have very different perspectives on ocean conservation—one is all about data-driven solutions and impacts on humans, the other is into high-tech exploration and raising awareness. But the two have enough common ground that they’ve formed a partnership intended to complement each other’s strengths. That includes a combined $185 million pledge to oceans work over the next four years. 

They’re calling it the Bloomberg-OceanX initiative, and it will coordinate activities, to some extent, between Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative, and Ray and his son Mark Dalio’s OceanX, an exploration and media outfit. 

The two entities “will coordinate aligned strategies to maximize their collective impact, investing both independently and together on projects.” Their first joint project was an expedition to the “Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument,” designated by the Obama administration in 2016. 

It’s hard to tell how much direct collaboration there’s going to be between the two, as they still have their own distinct agendas. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies, in particular, has an ambitious plan with its extension of Vibrant Oceans. In line with the former New York City mayor’s other giving, his organization’s ocean conservation giving cites a motivation to improve and extend human lives, citing more than 3 billion people who depend on oceans to live. The funder has given $69 million to ocean protection since 2011, and launched its Vibrant Oceans initiative in 2014. And as you might expect, it’s heavily data-driven.

Bloomberg has made fisheries and stopping illegal fishing a big agenda item, along with reducing pollution and protecting coral reefs. With the extension of $86 million, the program will expand into 10 additional countries. As with much of Bloomberg’s giving, big global NGOs are the main partners, including Oceana, Rare, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Oceans 5. The initiative is announcing new partners in coming months, but there’s probably not much hope here for new grantees looking to get in on the action.

The Dalio family is a little harder to pin down. Even as its giving has expanded significantly in the past five years or so, details are still hard to come by. Dalio Philanthropies’ website has improved some, but there’s not much readily available information on financials, grantees, dollar amounts or staff beyond public 990s. (That said, Barbara Dalio recently talked with Inside Philanthropy about her growing efforts to improve Connecticut’s schools.)

We do know a big marine beneficiary of Dalio largesse is Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and that a major part of the family’s oceans commitment is through OceanX, which was co-founded by Mark Dalio, a documentary producer and director. OceanX is all about exploration and raising awareness, with partners like BBC Studios and National Geographic Society, and with its own high-dollar research vessel the Alucia, and starting in 2019, the Alucia2.

So how do Bloomberg’s number-crunching program and the Dalios’ Jacques Cousteau-esque exploration work fit together? 

Michael Bloomberg says, “We're teaming up with OceanX to ensure that ocean conservation receives the attention it deserves.” For all of his focus on low-hanging fruit and tangible wins, Bloomberg’s still well aware of the need to win over hearts and minds. In fact, Bloomberg Philanthropies not long ago started partnering with Radical Media to produce documentaries, including one on the decline of the coal industry and one in the works on the community impacts of climate change. 

The announcement of $185 million in commitments was part of the recent Our Ocean Conference, of which pledges for ocean protection are a major component.

Both Dalio and Bloomberg have signed the Giving Pledge. Together, the two men are worth nearly $70 billion. Given their vast wealth, their expanding marine efforts could have a huge impact on work in this space in coming years.

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