Bloomberg on Philanthropy

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The former mayor of New York City shares his thoughts on the impact of private donations on public issues.

Over the past 20 years, I have grown increasingly active in philanthropy—and increasingly convinced of its power to save lives and change the world. I’ve seen this power not only as a donor, but also as a mayor who has experienced the positive impact that private donations can have on public issues. And the longer Washington, D.C., remains mired in paralysis, the more important philanthropy becomes as an engine of innovation and progress.


Traditionally, governments do not innovate very effectively because innovation involves risk—and elected officials avoid risks that could damage their careers. In addition, they are responsible for spending taxpayer dollars wisely, and it can be hard to justify spending the public’s money on untested ideas. The power of philanthropy, however, is restricted only by the size of our imagination. That makes for a promising partnership, with philanthropic organizations providing the resources for governments to find new ways to tackle the challenges they face.


Philanthropy can’t replace government spending, but it can supplement it in powerful ways. In New York City, we used public-
private partnerships to help tackle a whole range of problems that had long been ignored. For instance, I took George Soros to lunch in 2011 and asked him to give $30 million to create what we called “The Young Men’s Initiative,” which is designed to improve educational and career outcomes for young black and Latino men. George told me: “Okay, Mike, I’ll give $30 million­—as long as you do, too.” That was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had. But the initiative has been a big success, and earlier this year President Obama launched a nationwide program that’s modeled in part on the work that we began.


On every issue, philanthropy can help drive progress­. Government innovation is one of the main focuses of my foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies. We run a competition called the Mayors Challenge, which encourages cities to develop creative solutions to common urban challenges, and as an incentive, we provide funding to help implement the best ideas. 


Providence, Rhode Island, won our first Mayors Challenge with a literacy program that increases the number of words preschool children are exposed to. The program has attracted a lot of interest because it’s novel, it’s fairly simple and, if it works, it will be easy for other cities to copy. In fact, that’s part of the competition criteria: We look for the most promising ideas that have the potential to be replicated so that we can help drive change not just in one city but around the world. The Mayors Challenge was such a big success that we brought it to Europe, and more than 155 cities in 28 countries submitted proposals. 


Philanthropy can be just as effective in spurring change outside of government. Right now there are climate scientists looking for ways to avoid the next natural disaster, and laboratory researchers working on medical advances that will change the lives of thousands of patients suffering from disease. Philanthropy is making all that work possible. In museums around the world, children’s eyes are being opened to art and history because donors have made so many treasures of our past accessible to the public—and organizations (including my foundation) are making those collections even more accessible through technology. 


Of course, philanthropy isn’t just about writing checks. You have to find good partners and ensure that resources are being used effectively. Just like at my company, which is founded on the principle that better data leads to better decisions, Bloomberg Philanthropies uses data to track everything we do. When something works, we expand it. When it doesn’t, we end it—and try something else. 


Making a difference in people’s lives is perhaps the most rewarding thing one can do. Philanthropy is not the only way to do that—volunteering is also a powerful agent for change, and encouraging service is an area my foundation actively supports. After all, there is no more precious resource than our time.


All of us can give, and so many people do. It’s one reason why I think our best days as a country—no matter how bad things get in Washington—are still ahead.

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