Whether Michael Bloomberg decides to run for president in 2008, it is clear he is serious about building up his philanthropic giving.
The billionaire mayor is expected to disclose shortly that he gave $165 million to more than 1,000 charities in 2006, and is forming an organization called Bloomberg Philanthropies that will organize all of his giving: his personal one-time contributions, his company’s donations and the projects undertaken by the new foundation.
He recently purchased two buildings near his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to use as the headquarters and has begun to assemble a staff that is sketching out some of the foundation’s first projects. He is even recreating another Bloomberg bullpen there — his trademark office arrangement that has everyone sitting together with no walls.
Despite the speculation that Bloomberg will dip into his fortune to bankroll a presidential run, the billionaire insists that when he leaves City Hall at the end of 2009, he will take a vacation and then focus on giving his money away.
But if he were to run for president while also operating a foundation, it would be a historic moment in the philanthropic world and likely a tricky road to navigate.
“It has never happened before — people who are affluent do run for president, but nobody who’s had such a major role in philanthropy,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Foundations are really not allowed to be involved in politics at all, so he would have to be extra careful so that one world doesn’t mess with the other.”
Palmer said the fact that Bloomberg is creating an official foundation is a signal “that even though he’s been giving generously, he is going to ratchet up his giving and needs something more formal.
“He’s already supporting a huge number of charities, but this is probably a sign that he needs more professional advisers and may be thinking about something more ambitious,” she said.
Estimates of Bloomberg’s wealth range from $5.5 billion to more than $13 billion, and his riches would multiply if he sold the financial information company he founded in the early 1980s. He said last year he had decided not to sell at that time. But he had previously indicated that establishing his foundation would probably involve selling the company.
Bloomberg has been giving his money away for many years. Since he has been in office, his staff has released annual lists of where his money goes and the total amount.
Every year, he is giving more money to more groups. In 2005, he gave $144 million to 987 organizations, compared with $139 million to 843 groups in 2004 and $136 million to 653 charities in 2003.
Some of last year’s $165 million went toward starting a worldwide campaign he announced last year against smoking, a health concern he says is often overlooked in philanthropy. He has pledged $125 million over a few years for the cause.
The anti-tobacco initiative is the first project by his foundation. It is consistent with the overall themes that have guided his giving over the years, such as public health, medical research, arts and education.
Aides said he is set to announce a $9 million gift to the World Health Organization over the next two years to prevent traffic fatalities. They are a leading cause of death among young people in low- and middle-income countries and one more cause that does not get a lot of philanthropic attention.
The money will go to pilot programs in Mexico and Vietnam to reduce drunken driving and improve use of motorcycle helmets, seat belts and child restraints.
Some of his largest personal gifts have gone to his alma mater, The Johns Hopkins University. In 2006, in addition to the $165 million he spread to hundreds of charities, he also gave $100 million for medical research and a new children’s hospital at the university.
Bloomberg will continue to make personal contributions while his foundation will focus on wider projects, including newer interests such as government accountability that have sharpened during his public life.
The agenda for this cause is not fully formed, but Bloomberg envisions a sort of scorecard to keep track of elected officials and candidates. The mayor, who this summer dropped his Republican affiliation to become an independent, says it would give voters a chance to scrutinize their leaders but not favor any candidate.
“What I would like to focus on a little bit is how the public knows who they’re voting for, what they’ve done, whether once elected they do it,” Bloomberg said in describing the concept earlier this year. “Being able to improve the democratic process, not trying to influence it in one direction or another.”
Bloomberg has hardly avoided throwing his money behind candidates and political causes — thousands of dollars on both sides of the aisle for races at all levels of government. He also contributed $7 million to the host committee for the 2004 Republican convention in New York that nominated President Bush for re-election.
Bloomberg gave more than $2.13 million to the housekeeping account of the state Republican Committee between 1999 and 2006, a record for any individual, according to the state chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
The mayor, who was a Democrat for most of his life, steers his money toward New York-centric groups and causes typically considered to be liberal. He has given millions to abortion rights groups, stem cell research, gay rights and gun control advocacy organizations.
But there are more conservative groups as well, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Boy Scouts of America.
Within his foundation, Bloomberg says he has little interest in starting his own programs. He will fund existing organizations that he believes are already doing good work.
He also wants his foundation to fund projects with measurable results, which is what he calls a “new trend in philanthropy.” He points to the Robin Hood Foundation, which targets poverty in New York City, as an example. That group uses independent evaluators to hold accountable the programs it supports.
His eldest daughter, Emma Bloomberg, has recently begun working for that foundation. Bloomberg told Contribute magazine last year that both of his daughters are socially conscious and support a number of causes, but he does not expect they will run his foundation.
Bloomberg’s donations are ostensibly anonymous, but his giving is not a closely guarded secret either, with the donations often easily traced back to the source. Although he does not like to publicly discuss dollar amounts, he does not mind talking about his pet causes and reasons for giving.
An oft-told story is that he first learned about the importance of philanthropy from his father, a bookkeeper who Bloomberg says never earned more than $11,000 a year. Still, the mayor recalls, the family gave money to the Red Cross, UNICEF and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“I’ve always believed it’s important to give during your lifetime,” Bloomberg told Contribute last year. “I mean, you can’t take the money with you. You should be able to enjoy any difference you can make.”