Bloomberg’s Billions and Why it Matters to Women’s Philanthropy

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as an endorsement for any candidate for public office. Philanthropy Women is partially funded by fiscal sponsorship through the Women’s Funding Network, a 501c(3) organization, and therefore cannot make any political endorsements.

Many of us have probably read the articles about Bloomberg’s multiple lawsuits involving sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment for women. This post isn’t about that, and that topic is deserving of its own discussion in feminist giving circles. This post is about Bloomberg’s philanthropy for women, and the way his billions impact not just gender equality movements, but also environmental movements and movements for racial justice.

Aaron Dorfman, Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, recently moderated a panel of experts to discuss Bloomberg’s billions and their impact on civil society. (Image Credit: NCRP)

Snapshot of Bloomberg’s Giving for Gender Equality

Before going further into the discussion of Bloomberg’s full range of philanthropy, let’s familiarize ourselves with some of his philanthropy for gender equality and women’s empowerment. For just a quick snapshot of Bloomberg Family Foundation’s giving for women, here is page one of the results from 2014 to 2018 with keyword “women”:

A cloud database published on MassLive indicates that Bloomberg Family Foundation has given multi-million multi-year gifts, as well as smaller grants, for women’s empowerment and gender and racial inclusiveness. (Image Credit: Screenshot of results for “women” search of Associated Press Data Analysis)

These are the top 8 entries of 12 just for organizations with “women” in the title. Just from this four-year window, you can see that Bloomberg has made multimillion dollar donations to large women’s organizations, and also smaller donations to arts and media organizations supporting both women, people of color, and LGBTQ. This search only captures part of it.

Let’s also take a quick look at some of his political giving in support of women. Here are gifts that he made to WomenVote!, and independent expenditure program of Emily’s List, from 2014-2018:

Political gifts from Michael Bloomberg from 2014 to 2018. During that time, he made the following contributions to the organization WomenVote! (Image Credit: Screenshot Masslive.com cloud database of Associated Press analysis.)

Again, this is just a small taste of some of the big giving that Bloomberg has done politically to try to level of playing field for women. This is good information to keep in mind as we go into discussing Bloomberg’s influence across other sectors of philanthropy.

All of this giving has paved the way for Bloomberg politically. His wealth has played a critical role in his ascendancy as a serious contender for the presidency, and many progressive women’s organizations are recipients of his largesse.

Philanthropy Experts Weigh in On Bloomberg’s Billions

Last Friday, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) convened a webinar online to discuss the power of Bloomberg’s giving. David Callahan, Founder and Editor of Inside Philanthropy, provided an overview at the beginning of how Bloomberg’s giving spans many areas of philanthropy, and how he is also an active political giver.

“He’s given out $10 billion since 1997, he’s also pumped a huge amount of money into his political career, first as mayor, then as a major donor to the Democratic party in the 2018 mid-terms, and now over $450 million in giving for his 2020 race,” said David Callahan.

In terms of Bloomberg’s philanthropy, said Callahan, “The biggest priority has been global health […] He’s put over a billion dollars into global anti-smoking campaign that he’s been funding for years.” Callahan also referenced Bloomberg’s work in improving road safety globally. “Johns Hopkins is another major priority, and of course climate change, and then you sort of go down from there.”

Bubble map of Bloomberg’s philanthropy. (Image credit: NYT)

“I’ve often been impressed by Bloomberg’s giving because he’s really good at being effective in a kind of narrow way. He knows how to have impact with his global health giving. […] He has not gone after any big sexy issues, people don’t think much about road accidents but they kill more people in developing countries than AIDs, malaria, and TB combined.”

The key takeaway, said Callahan, is that Bloomberg is “a technocratic giver, and an effective one.”

Callahan also discussed Bloomberg’s parallel 501(c)4 giving for gun safety and said Bloomberg is the “only donor who’s really gone toe-to-toe with the NRA in terms of offering a real counterweight to their power with the Everytown for Gun Safety initiative that he’s backed.”

Next up, Farhad Ebrahimi, Founder of the Chorus Foundation in Boston, shared his thoughts on what it’s like to be working for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels and toward environmental sustainability.

“I’ve been running the Chorus Foundation for about 15 years […] and we started with a laser focus on environment,” said Ebrahimi, adding that the foundation “has shifted over time into a broader multi-issue focus, and some of that was in reaction to what we saw Bloomberg Philanthropies and other larger institutions pursuing.”

Ebrahimi noted that he is not trying to put anyone who has worked at Bloomberg Philanthropies “on blast” as he realizes that within the context of their job they were likely doing the best they could to impact the environmental movement positively. But he did want to single out Michael Bloomberg for some special attention.

“I am trying to put Michael Bloomberg himself on blast,” said Ebrahimi, describing the multiple layers of influence that Bloomberg has across charitable and political giving, as well as through the resources of the Bloomberg’s media entities, which distribute the news and also create tools like the Gender Equality Index.

“I do think his approaches to both philanthropy and to political giving need to be examined critically, especially when he’s also a former elected official, a a self-funded candidate, a media mogul. It’s quite a bit of power and influence for one person,” said Ebrahimi.

Ebrahimi went on to discuss the central factor that needs to be addressed to deal with climate change. “One thing I have learned, […] is the crisis of climate change isn’t really about science, or technology, even public policy — it’s about power. Who has the power to heed the science to invest in the technology or to enact the public policy. That’s been what’s been missing.”

Ebrahimi talked about how the Chorus Foundation is now more focused on questions of power and equity in society. “That’s become the overarching frame for the work the Chorus Foundation funds, as well as how we fund it.”

“If you’re getting thrown under the bus, it doesn’t matter if it’s solar-powered,” said Ebrahimi, as a metaphor for the role that philanthropy sometimes plays in reducing economic activity in communities dependent on fossil fuel production for paychecks.

Going with the example of coal, said Ebrahimi, Bloomberg focused solely on shutting down coal-fired power plants. While he was successful with this strategy, Ebrahimi said that “local organizations were not really considered in the process,” and communities faced economic devastation with the loss of the coal industry for employment.

Ebrahimi said that Bloomberg also “didn’t seem concerned with coal extraction,” noting that the some mines did not slow down with extraction, and exported extracted coal to other parts of the world.

“If we seek to support transformative work, then we need to transform ourselves,” said Ebrahimi, and called for strategies around ending coal use that consider the broader context.

Ebrahimi said that Bloomberg has also been a big proponent of natural gas and fracking, beginning with his own “personal embrace of fracking and writing an oped with George Mitchell,” a fracking pioneer.

LaTosha Brown, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Politics and a leader in politics and philanthropy, joined the webinar and shared her concerns about Bloomberg. “It’s a larger discussion about the role of philanthropy,” said Brown, “and how people have used philanthropy to gain power, favor, and positioning.”

Brown called on the public to recognize that money is a huge problem in American politics, and to support campaign finance reform, and grassroots organizing with labor unions and other community groups.

Brown called attention to Bloomberg represents a phenomena that is largely “an outcome of racism.”

“We have been trained and socialized to believe that our default leadership position is a white wealthy male,” said Brown. She said Americans continue to buy into the myth that “white wealthy men who owned land were better prepared than everyone else to govern, to vote, to control. Because we have not fundamentally dealt with racism, we continue to return to that as our default position.”

While Brown is aware that many mayors are coming out to support Bloomberg, she cautions the public to question the larger context of how money may have influenced these endorsements. “That he is funding his campaign entirely himself,” said Brown, she finds “extremely problematic.”

“We need people funding politics, so that we have accountability to the people.”

Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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