What Big (and not-so-big) Donors Can Learn from Philanthropy, Bloomberg-style

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May 20, 2016; New York Times

If you have been in the nonprofit sector long enough, you may have noticed that as the Baby Boomer generation ages, the face of philanthropy and giving is undergoing a dramatic shift in the connection between donors and their philanthropic gifts. Spoiler alert—they are more connected than ever.

While it still does happen (we swear it still does), the mystery donor that flies completely under the organization’s radar for years until they pass on and leave a huge gift that is the talk of every staff meeting for the next six months is a rarity. To a millennial, it must seem more probable that someone is making it up as an urban legend to entertain the interns than recounting the way charitable giving ever unfolded.

One only needs to look at the sheer number of new nonprofits forming to meet specific niche program wishes of donors to know the shift is real and here to stay. We should have known the generation that challenged and changed social and political rules, both written and unwritten, would have its way with philanthropy.

The shift is showing up in big and little ways across the sector. Donors no longer just want buildings, boardrooms, and programs named after their families; they want in on the plans on the ground floor, as if their donation were investment in a private company. Only instead of a burgeoning stock portfolio or return on investment, they are looking for collective impact and targeted local results that can be replicated on a larger scale and stage. The modern donor doesn’t care about a video going viral. They want viral change.

Nowhere was this more evident recently than in the New York Times write-up on the giving style of media mogul and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his multimillion-dollar foundation. The interview with the Times was an appetizer before Bloomberg Philanthropies released the annual report on their strategic global initiatives.

Like an Italian fashion haus talking up their spring line and doling out advice on how to wear florals this year, Bloomberg spoke frankly about what building a multi-billion dollar empire taught him about philanthropy and what we can all glean from his hard-won lessons. Among the thoughts he shared with the Times:

  • Bloomberg said he had realized what he could and could not do. “If you try everything all at once, you’ll do nothing,” he said. “If you look at climate change and say, ‘Everyone won’t cooperate,’ you won’t get anything done.”
  • You should pick one thing and go for it. In the sphere of climate change, one initiative he has supported is the Sierra Club’s campaign to shutter coal-fired power plants. His foundation has given $80 million to that initiative, Beyond Coal, which has worked to close 232 coal plants in the United States. “I’d think being a soloist falls apart,” Bloomberg mused. “I think there’s a limit to how much you can do on your own.”

No doubt, for Bloomberg there has to be some satisfaction in continuing the change he championed as mayor of America’s largest city, now through the lens of philanthropy. As Rick Cohen pointed out in a Sept 2014 article for NPQ, “The agenda the foundation carries out some of the agenda that Bloomberg had been pursuing as mayor. For example, consider his policy agenda in education: It’s an education reform agenda, much like his enthusiastic promotion of the proliferation of charter schools in New York City.”

The Times also noted:

Bloomberg has managed through philanthropy to work toward goals that were thwarted when he was mayor. A case in point was his effort to impose a ban on the sale of large soft drinks in New York City and to persuade the New York State Legislature to impose a statewide soda tax. He was defeated on both counts. But he has contributed money to successful campaigns elsewhere to impose a tax on soda sales.

Another tip from Bloomberg was for donors to try out giving to programs and charities that might not be a dream project along the way. You may have a dream of opening an large scale pet rescue some day, but why not choose little projects along the way (donate to that spay and neuter clinic or be a part of the pet food bank) as a way to both enact change and a path to learn lessons on what works and what doesn’t? Those lessons are easier to swallow when there are fewer commas involved.

Bloomberg hopes the philanthropic twist on the entrepreneurial spirit of “pick one thing” hits potential donors no matter what their resources may be. Before the annual report was released, the homepage of Bloomberg Philanthropies noted that Bloomberg’s first charitable donation was $5 given back to his college alumni association immediately after graduation. Giving what you can in addition to picking one thing is all a part of philanthropy Bloomberg-style.—Carrie Collins-Fadell