A billionaire's search for right causes to donate

Bloomberg, 72, has vowed to give away his $32.8 billion fortune before he dies

On a sweltering Saturday in June in Istanbul’s old city, Michael R Bloomberg, power-dressed in a dark blue suit, monogrammed white shirt and cuff links, sat down to a late-morning breakfast with local antismoking activists on a rooftop overlooking the glittering Sea of Marmara.

The group, which included Turkish doctors and public health officials, had gathered to celebrate the surprising success of a campaign to persuade Turks, notorious for their love of tobacco, to smoke fewer cigarettes. It was a campaign formulated and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

Bloomberg was in an expansive mood, holding forth on Istanbul’s antiquities and dropping the names of Turkish big shots he has known: Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coca-Cola, and Ahmet Ertegun, the late rock ‘n’ roll magnate.

But what  Bloomberg really wanted to talk about was the success of his antismoking program in Turkey, an effort that has drawn the passionate support of his newest Turkish pal, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former prime minister and the country’s just-elected president.

“Turkey is a great example, and it can be translated to other countries,” Bloomberg told his breakfast companions. And who knows, he joked, his philanthropy may even win him a Nobel Prize. There were some cautious titters from the audience. Was Bloomberg kidding — or was he issuing a statement of intent?

It’s hard to tell. Transforming Walter Mitty fantasy into Michael Bloomberg reality has been his career path. A middle-class boy from Medford, Mass., becomes a millionaire equity trader on Wall Street who turns into a profane billionaire media titan who finally evolves into a reform-driven, three-term mayor. Now the man who flirted with a presidential run has one last aspiration: mayor of the world.

Bloomberg, 72, has vowed to give away his $32.8 billion fortune before he dies. In doing so, he hopes to sharply reduce high smoking rates in Turkey, Indonesia and other countries; bring down obesity levels in Mexico; reduce traffic in Rio de Janeiro (and Istanbul); improve road safety in India and Kenya; prevent deaths at childbirth to mothers in Tanzania; and organise cities worldwide to become more environmentally friendly and efficient in delivering services.

His vehicle to achieve all of this is Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation that he started in 2006 and that now employs about 30 people with programmes in 95 countries. Of course, a billionaire with a charity foundation and good intentions is no news flash — see Bill Gates, Warren E Buffett and many other titans who have promised to dispense with their fortunes.

Paul G Schervish, the director of the Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, says that at this exalted level of billionaire giving, there is often a tension between the ambition to do lasting good and the charge of ego that fires it.

But Bloomberg has a unique perspective, even among billionaire philanthropists, Schervish said. As both an entrepreneur and the guy who served at the top of government bureaucracies, he grasps better than most how to balance risk with practicalities when he doles out his cash.

To that end,  Bloomberg says he focuses his giving in countries where there is broad national support for his programme — be it to curb cigarette smoking in Turkey or sugared drinks in Mexico. If he gets it right, Schervish said, “he has a chance to make a little bit of history.”

Bloomberg, who left public office just eight months ago, has started increasing his donations: Last year, he gave away $452 million, his highest annual figure to date. “What else am I going to do with it,” he said. “My joke is that I want to bounce the check to the undertaker.” Bloomberg has often offered up this bromide, but it actually oversimplifies what experts say may be the hardest part of accumulating extreme wealth: how to give it all away.

In fact, he has been giving at a slower pace than some other wealthy philanthropists. His wealth, meanwhile, keeps expanding. According to Forbes, Bloomberg’s net worth grew by $6 billion last year, making him the world’s 16th-richest person. So he’d better start writing the checks fast. At his current rate, if he were to live to the ripe old age of 102, as his mother, Charlotte, did, he would give away just half of his current fortune.

Since leaving City Hall for good last December, Bloomberg has split his time between his foundation and Bloomberg L.P., his media empire. His work for the two enterprises often overlaps. During his trip to Turkey, he tended faithfully to the Bloomberg business brand at a flashy conference and meetings with clients.

MO for philanthropy

Bloomberg’s modus operandi as a giver is not all that different from his management of his company or of New York City: Embrace big, if controversial, ideas and rely on a trusted cadre of advisers to get the job done. (Bloomberg Philanthropies is run by Patricia E Harris, who served as a deputy mayor for more than a decade and who inspired his early steps as a committed philanthropist.)

Two of his primary philanthropic ambitions — reducing smoking and the consumption of sugary drinks worldwide — come directly from efforts he made as mayor. Taken together, they distill what New Yorkers have come to see as the best and worst in the man.

When it came to the ban on large-size sugary drinks, however, critics piled on. They saw it as an example of nanny-state overreach, not to mention  Bloomberg’s tendency to assume an authoritarian attitude — and then bully his way through to the end with clout and cash. The edict was thrown out by New York State’s highest court in June. Bloomberg makes no apologies.

“If there is one thing that I learned from 12 years in government,” he said, “is that you can effect change, pull people together and face big societal problems.” In discussing Bloomberg’s post-mayoral future, his top aides cite time and again the example of former President Bill Clinton and the extent to which his foundation has served as a springboard for continued power, relevance and reputational enhancement.

Still, the ever-competitive Bloomberg crowd knows that it has one thing that Clinton’s boundless political skills cannot match: almost $33 billion and a company that, according to the data consultant Burton-Taylor, spit out $2.7 billion in profit last year.

Bloomberg, who owns an 88 per cent stake in Bloomberg L.P. did not neglect its corporate imperatives during his two-day visit to Istanbul. Turkey, with its profitable banks and growing capital markets, is one of the company’s more dynamic growth areas. Sales of Bloomberg terminals — which present a mix of news and data to financiers — have doubled there since 2009.

Like many self-made billionaires, he likes to benchmark himself against those he sees as his competitive peers. So Clinton’s name came up, as did those of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and, of course, Gates, with whom Bloomberg has joined forces on several charitable initiatives.

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