Annual Letter on Philanthropy
“I always believe that tomorrow will be better than today. But I’m also a realist, and I know that believing and hoping won’t make it so. Doing is what matters.”
Michael R. Bloomberg
Will our country and our world be better or worse off two years from now?
I’m an optimist: I always believe that tomorrow will be better than today. But I’m also a realist, and I know that believing and hoping won’t make it so. Doing is what matters.
One of our board members, Walter Isaacson, recently published a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. A half a millennium ago, da Vinci wrote: “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
Da Vinci was an artist, engineer, mathematician, inventor, scientist, musician, architect, writer – a Renaissance man, sure. But a doer. My kind of guy.
We can’t all have da Vinci’s genius. But we can all learn from his drive and the emphasis he placed on action. That’s a big reason why I first ran for mayor in 2001: I was tired of seeing paralysis where progress was possible, especially on public education. And, ultimately, it’s a big reason why I decided not to spend the next one to two years campaigning to be president of the United States – and, instead, to double down on the work that Bloomberg Philanthropies is already leading.
America and the world face enormous challenges. And it’s safe to say that at least for the next two years, given the leadership vacuum in the White House and partisan gridlock in Congress, the federal government will make virtually no progress in meeting them.
We can’t afford to lose two years. Every day, the window for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change grows smaller. More Americans lose loved ones to opioid overdoses and gun violence. More students miss out on a good education and the opportunity to go to college. And communities that were once home to thriving industries slip further behind in the changing economy. Proposing ideas for 2021 isn’t good enough. We need to get things done in the here and now, and I’m lucky enough to be in a position to help do that.
Of course, philanthropy can’t replace action by the federal government. But it can spur progress from the bottom up – from communities, cities, states, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Leaders in all of those groups are taking action – and getting things done. Philanthropy can help them do more, faster. And that’s exactly what we will do.
In the year ahead, as political candidates debate what to do in the future, we will work to improve the present by expanding our efforts across all of our major areas of focus.
Climate and Environment
It’s been clear for a long time that we’re in a race against time on climate change. But over the past year, it’s become clearer just how far behind we’ve fallen. The most recent scientific evidence shows that the climate is changing even faster than previously expected, bringing more deadly and destructive storms, wildfires, and droughts. Millions of people around the world have seen that evidence with their own eyes and in their own lives.
Unless we act, we will be much worse off in two years than we are today – with dirtier air and water, more carbon emissions, and diminished chances of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
We can’t accept that – and so we are ramping up the work we have been leading to end the single biggest global source of air pollution and carbon emissions: coal. Since 2011, working with the Sierra Club, we have helped communities in red and blue states stand up for their right to clean air and water. As a result, over that time, more than half of all U.S. coal-fired power plants have closed or committed to closing. Last year, U.S. coal production fell to a 40-year low – even though Washington is working against us, trying to prop up the coal industry with taxpayer bailouts and eliminating rules that protect the public from toxic pollution.
When we began the Beyond Coal campaign, 13,000 Americans were dying from coal pollution each year. By 2017, that number had fallen to 3,000. That’s good progress, but it’s not enough. So this year, we set a new goal: to close every remaining coal-fired power plant by 2030. It is an ambitious goal, but we can reach it – and we won’t stop there.
Recently, I announced a new campaign, called Beyond Carbon. Our aim is to end America’s dependence on gas and oil as soon as possible and accelerate our transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy.
To do that, we’ll employ and expand the same types of legal, advocacy, and electoral strategies that have proven so successful in the Beyond Coal campaign – supporting governors who are committed to 100 percent clean energy, helping activists demand that elected officials stop kicking the can down the road, and building a coordinated, nationwide grassroots army to get results and win elections. We will also continue to support mayors who are leading by example. Last year, we challenged the 100 most populous U.S. cities to propose bold plans for cutting carbon emissions and are working with the 25 winners to put those plans in motion.
With cities and states leading the way, we will be better off in two years than we are today – with cleaner air, cleaner power, more good green jobs, and lower carbon emissions.
Beyond Carbon will also apply lessons we have learned tackling another issue that Washington has ignored: gun violence.
The vast majority of Americans – including the majority of gun owners – favor common-sense rules that prevent guns from falling into dangerous hands. But Congress has not passed one major gun safety bill in a quarter century. Each year, around 36,000 Americans are killed or commit suicide with guns and another 100,000 are injured. Without more progress in states and cities, the next two years will bring more violence, more heartbreak, and more promising lives cut short.
Americans are proving that a different future is possible. Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action have organized millions of volunteers to successfully push state legislatures to pass bills, governors to take executive action, and CEOs to set higher corporate responsibility standards. More than 20 states have passed laws strengthening background checks for gun sales. In last year’s midterm elections, we supported candidates who promised to pass common-sense gun safety measures – and voters elected more of them to office than ever before. At the same time, we are helping cities advance and defend local laws that prevent gun violence.
With Americans stepping up to lead, more cities and states will pass common-sense gun measures that protect people, and we will be better off in two years than we are today – with safer communities, fewer senseless tragedies, and fewer guns in dangerous hands.
Gun violence isn’t the only deadly crisis that the federal government is failing to address. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. That’s more than died in car crashes. We’ve heard a lot of talk from Washington, but the federal government has not provided adequate funding to address the epidemic or the breadth of services needed to help people who are addicted. Meanwhile, the epidemic continues to get worse. Without leadership from beyond Washington, we will be worse off in two years than we are today – with more people dying from overdoses, and more families and communities torn apart by addiction.
Fortunately, states are leading where Washington won’t, and we are helping them. In two of the states hit hardest – Pennsylvania and Michigan – we are bringing people together to attack the opioid epidemic with proven strategies that can have an immediate impact and save a lot of lives. That includes expanding access to medications that can reverse an overdose; expanding access to medically assisted treatment, including in jails and prisons; and fighting stigma and misunderstanding around buprenorphine and other drugs that are used for treatment.
The opioid epidemic touches Americans in every community and all walks of life. Addressing it requires cooperation from across society and among everyone working on the front lines: doctors, educators, law enforcement, first responders, teachers, social workers, elected officials, survivors. Our approach empowers each of these groups to take bolder action and share their resources and expertise to help spur progress and save lives. We hope to create a blueprint that other states can learn from and put into action. If they do, we can begin turning the tide on this epidemic and provide a model for the next Congress and president to adopt.
I recently announced a $1.8 billion gift to my alma mater, Johns Hopkins, for financial aid. It will ensure that admissions are permanently need-blind, so that the school never again has to consider an applicant’s ability to pay before accepting them. But Hopkins, a private university, is just one school.
At many top U.S. colleges, more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Meanwhile, support for public colleges and universities is falling, even as the importance of a college education has grown. Since 2008, state funding for public two- and four-year colleges has declined by more than $7 billion. That has made going to college less affordable and less accessible to students from lower-income families.
The need for greater economic diversity on college campuses is a national challenge that philanthropy alone can’t fix, but we can make a serious dent in it and start a wave of change that spreads to schools across the country.
Our foundation leads an effort, called the American Talent Initiative, that brings together 120 colleges and universities that are committed to enrolling and graduating more high-achieving students from low- and middle-income families. Since we began, an additional 7,300 low-income students have enrolled in those schools, compared with the two years before the program started. Through our CollegePoint program, we have also helped more than 53,000 low- and middle-income students navigate the college application process, including financial aid, by connecting them to virtual counselors.
At the same time, too many students are robbed of the chance to go to college by failing public schools. We’re working with a variety of partners to change that. We support efforts to help former educators get elected to school boards and other public offices. We’re helping parents advocate for better schools that prepare kids for success. And we support government leaders who are working to challenge the status quo through policies that raise standards and improve accountability.
Not every young person will go to college, and there are many good jobs in growing industries that require more than a high school education but not a four-year college degree. In cities including Denver and New Orleans, we support programs connecting high school students with apprenticeships in growing industries. In Baltimore, we are working with local businesses to train students in new skills that employers need.
We need states and the federal government to provide more support to programs like these and reinvent career and technical education. That is unlikely to happen over the next two years, and again, we can’t afford to wait.
Supporting Local Leaders
There are many more issues that the White House and Congress are failing to address, and where chances of progress over the next two years are slim, at best. That’s why we brought the most recent round of the Mayors Challenge back to the United States, after competitions in Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. We invited U.S. mayors to propose ideas for civic programs that, if successful, can be copied around the country. Winning cities are implementing bold new programs to fight inequality, improve air quality, remove barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated, expand access to affordable housing, and much more. In each of these areas, we’re supporting mayors’ efforts to engage and empower citizens to participate in creating new policies.
The country cannot afford to sit back and watch problems grow worse over the next two years as we wait in hope for new and better leadership. To help fill the void, we will continue to expand our work with local leaders who are committed to bold experimentation – and to listening to and acting closely together with the public.
We’ll do this through programs like the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership executive training program, which strengthens mayors’ ability to lead and manage their cities. Through our Public Art Challenge, we’re supporting cities that are employing creativity to bring attention to important issues – and bring new vitality to their communities. And through Bloomberg Associates, we are helping mayors tackle complex problems by bringing people together, sharing best practices, and building public support for new initiatives.
Mayors understand what da Vinci called “the urgency of doing.” Not every new idea will work. But there is no progress without innovation, and no innovation without experimentation. Cities have long been centers of new ideas – and supporting them is one of the most important things we can do to spur progress in the face of federal inaction.
It is no coincidence that da Vinci hailed from the most vibrant city of his time. Fifteenth-century Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance. The city’s embrace of trade, support for the arts, and respect for science and reason helped to fuel an unprecedented era of human knowledge and progress.
Today, cities can help usher in a new renaissance – led by citizens, inspired by our common goals, driven by data and science, and propelled by creativity and innovation. Trying to bring change to Washington in 2021 is important, but it’s not enough. We must do – now.