Rachel Cohen at The Intercept drew our attention last week to an unusual set of Facebook ads. “In three separate ads targeted to California, Michigan, and Florida,” she noted, the Michael Bloomberg presidential campaign “issued the following appeal to potential voters: ‘EMERGENCY: Mike is planning his next round of climate crisis spending. Tell him where you think his money should go. We’re giving him a list of concerns next week.’” Each of the ads, carrying the Bloomberg campaign logo and featuring a climate concern specific to the state, then linked to a quiz or petition further encouraging the reader to get behind his candidacy.

On Twitter, philanthropy historian and Urban Institute scholar Ben Soskis posed this apt question about the exercise: “Participatory grantmaking or violation of regulations governing private foundations?” In other words, is this a high-minded effort to engage the public in democratic grantmaking, as championed by philanthropy scholar Cynthia Gibson? Or is it the illegal use of private-foundation dollars to promote a political candidacy?

Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult not to suspect that the politician concerned was mobilizing his philanthropy for personal electoral purposes. But Bloomberg in particular has spent decades artfully blurring the distinction between his charity and his political aspirations. Beginning in 2001, with New York City’s Carnegie Corporation acting as agent, Bloomberg “anonymously” funneled millions of dollars to hundreds of New York’s arts and cultural groups. (Everyone knew the funding came from Bloomberg.) 

When he sought in 2008 to amend the city charter to enable him to run for a third mayoral term, according to The New York Times, his administration asked several Bloomberg beneficiaries to speak publicly for the amendment. City controller William C. Thompson, Jr., blasted this as “an abuse of power, and it must stop.” Then-Congressman Anthony Weiner added that “if you rely on the mayor or the administration to fund your organization, saying no when the mayor calls is not an option.”

By 2010, Mayor Bloomberg had brought his charitable giving more directly into his own Bloomberg Family Foundation. In an epic sector-bender, he announced that Patricia Harris, his first deputy mayor, would simultaneously serve as voluntary chairperson and CEO of his $1.75 billion fund.

As usual, Pablo Eisenberg, legendary founder of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, minced no words. “It’s a conflict of interest, which links politics to philanthropy,” he noted to The New York Times. “They shouldn’t mix.” John C. Liu, the city’s controller, was similarly critical. “At best it would be a highly curious arrangement, one that would invariably be fraught with risk,” he told the Times. “It would be much easier to pass the smell test if there was a clear delineation between what is private and what is public.”

Today, as Bloomberg saturates the nation’s airwaves with his political ads, he also continues to direct millions of  philanthropic dollars to causes that reflect his own ideological inclinations. As David Callahan noted in a rigorous and balanced review of Bloomberg’s giving several months ago, he is worth $54 billion today and gave away $767 million in 2018—a figure that doesn’t include “many millions more for 501(c)(4) advocacy on guns and other issues.”

Potential presidential-level pressures on nonprofits and their professionals

Bloomberg’s charitable giving supports an imposing array of causes at the cutting edge of progressivism, of which gun control is only the beginning. He’s also been very active in environmental causes, and he has led the charge against the coal industry; in reproductive health, he has devoted millions to family planning at home and abroad; and he has pushed campaigns against outsized sugary drinks, tobacco, and partially hydrogenated cooking oils so vigorously that he has earned the sobriquet “Nanny Bloomberg.” In another bold foray across the charity/government boundary, he has even funded legal fellows attached to several state attorney-general offices, devoted entirely to exploring law-enforcement remedies to climate change.

In the course of pursuing these causes during the past two decades, millions of Bloomberg dollars have flowed to a vast range of progressive nonprofits. Even without receiving a friendly, subtle reminder about that from Bloomberg HQ—which, for all I know, may well be in the works—these nonprofits will be under tremendous, if implicit, pressure to get behind Mike. Not as institutions, of course—that’s clearly beyond the pale. But nonprofits are permitted to tip-toe up to the line of presidential politics with statements and ads that could dovetail nicely with Bloomberg proposals.

More important, these nonprofits are staffed by thousands of savvy activists long accustomed to vigorous “after-hours” political engagement, and who are champing at the bit to deploy their prodigious organizing skills against the incumbent president. 

In a year with a rich and tempting menu of progressive candidates, however, a nonprofit leader’s visible preference for anyone other than Bloomberg can only imperil future grants from his philanthropies. After all, no matter how short-lived may be Bloomberg’s presidential aspirations, his charitable activities are destined to be long-lived. And he’s already amply demonstrated his willingness to use charitable giving to help friends and hurt enemies. 

Should he actually win the presidency, of course, we will face an unprecedented set of issues about the relationship between philanthropy and politics—issues that should have been fully addressed while he was mayor. Sample question: should a successful Bloomberg-funded demonstration project be allowed to apply for replication funds from a Bloomberg administration?

Larger problems posed by the porousness

The larger problem posed by the porous border between Bloomberg philanthropies and Mike Bloomberg 2020, however, is that it may well contribute to the further erosion of public trust in the charitable sector. As nonprofit leaders begin dutifully to line up behind Bloomberg, his opponents will, once again, insist that this is an egregious abuse of philanthropy for political purposes. Journalists and concerned citizens—wondering about the possible fire beneath this smoke—will turn to foundation experts with raised eyebrows and the question, “Isn’t this in fact illegal?”

As they always do, the experts will then patiently explain that, done with adequate legal counsel, all of this is entirely permissible under the law. Indeed, they might add, deliberately blurring the line between politics and charity is nothing less than state-of-the-art philanthropic practice. Everyone knows that devoting charitable dollars to influencing or “leveraging” public dollars is far more efficacious than simply helping people directly. 

Yet the everyday voter, I suspect, still clings to the quaint notion that foundations and nonprofits should somehow be different from and better than politics—that they should indeed be about helping people directly. So far, however, our sophisticated sector-bending has proceeded largely out of public view (as well as off the decrepit radar of the IRS). Without adverse reaction from public opinion or oversight agencies, activists in charity and politics have pushed relentlessly against the boundary previously separating them. 

But if this practice is suddenly thrown into bold relief by a high-visibility presidential campaign, everyday citizens may indeed finally take notice. The fact that the sector’s experts tell them their beliefs are quaint and naïve will not quell discontent, because in the present political age, condescending lectures from professionals about the backwardness of public views have only stoked populist fury. And so American citizens may find yet another reason to distrust the charitable sector. Because it no longer seems to be about charity at all. 

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