Winners take all: A master class in contemporary philanthropy?

I’ve just finished reading** (aka listening) to a provocative new book —  Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World by New York Times journalist Anand Giridharadas. For those of you who want a master class in how to interface with international donors in education, I think this may be the book for you. 

First impression: this is a compelling, if cynical, book about philanthropy.  It’s not about individual donors but about the entire complex of ideas, actors and behaviours that form the mental models underpinning contemporary US based philanthropy. The book literally gallops along, fueled by insider accounts of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Aspen Institute, the work of major foundations and consulting firms. It’s studded with a cast of star appearances from leading philanthropists and young professionals. Political scientist Dan Drezner,  economist Dani Rodrik, and even Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, are featured, adding to the fun.

Argument:  Building a layered account through short case studies, participant observation and interviews with major philanthropists, politicians and foundation staff, Giridharadas argues that that the culture of philanthropy in the US has changed and is increasingly narrow. 

He builds a convincing portrait of what does and does not count as good philanthropy and shows how these ideas have come to permeate the field: 

  • Donors increasingly frame what they want to do with their philanthropic funding as “win-win” – for the investors and the recipients/targets of the funding. A double bottom line is essential.
  • The only acceptable language is the language of market and entrepreneurship. And it’s all about innovation – disruptive innovation – – all the way down.
  • Out of bounds are topics like the potential role of billionaire donors and their corporations in the creation of social inequality; the need for progessive taxation; and the role of state policies in ensuring equity and democracy.
  • The “heroes” are always innovators from the business sector.  Problems of the poor are personalized and individualized – leading to the concentration of efforts on improving the resilience and adaptability of the poor to the social and technological changes affecting them. Collective action or state regulation is rarely on the menu.
  • Major consulting firms have codified how to make “win-win” proposals and programs using a set of analytic tools that is reproducible across almost any field of philanthropic endeavor (but often neglecting collective action, context and the political economy of forces that drive inequality).
  • A whole generation of young people are being trained to execute this philanthropic approach – including through their recruitment into major consulting firms. As Giridharadas hilariously documents, there are workshops, seminars and even cruises that provide “how to guidance” to young professionals encouraging them to be part of the “win win”.
  • The new culture of philanthropy is changing the role of public intellectuals and academics:   “thought leaders” who purveys win-win arguments are the new normal (building on Dan Drezner’s recent book). 

Winners Take All is at times hyperbolic and reads a bit like Jonathan Swift satire. This may come from the fact that, for Giridharadas this topic is very personal. He worked for a major consulting firm and spent time as an Aspen institute fellow. Not only was he  deeply immersed in the culture of the new philanthropy; his ideas were sharply critiqued when he presented them at the Aspen Institute. 

The upshot:  Read this book if you need a master class in the language of current donor discourse. Giridharadas describes a mindset that increasingly permeates work in educational development organizations. I don’t necessarily agree with his portrait of the motivations behind this culture nor would I dismiss the benefits of entrepreneurship and innovation as completely as he does. But I have learned some of the lessons he offers in this book the hard way. For example:  Arguments that work best with international donors are those that are framed as “win-win” innovations. Never start with any strategy with a zero sum argument.. And try using a major consulting firm to advance an idea or proposal, it almost always improves the uptake of an idea.   

However, if you are really interested in contemporary philanthropy, try something more grounded in research. Stanford University Prof and colleague Rob Reich’s new book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better” is on my holiday reading list. I’m curious to read his take on how to reform charitable giving. 

I’m also looking forward to a NORRAG sponsored workshop on the new philanthropy being held in Stanford California in April 2019, where Rob Reich will be our host, with collaboration from the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, and the Open Society Foundation. 

What to watch/read/listen to this week:

An update on the future of reading:  one of the questions I raised in a recent blog is: “is listening as good as traditional reading for knowledge acquisition”  Today a New York Times article by Daniel T. Willingham takes up my question. The answer is “it depends.”

Read Rob Reich’s new book –  or see this short piece by Rob in the Stanford Innovation Review.Rob Reich. 2019 (winter).  Philanthropy in the Service of Democracy. Stanford Innovation Review.

Rob Reich. 2018.  Just Giving:  Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better. Princeton University Press

Take a look at Dan Drezner’s book on decline of the public intellectual and the rise of “thought leadership.”  Or listen to this podcast interview.

Dan Drezner. The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.. Oxford University Press.

Listen to Anand Giridharadas on the NYT Book review or NPR. Or just go all out and read** (listen) to the book. 

One thought on “Winners take all: A master class in contemporary philanthropy?

  1. So far I’ve read only Chapter 1 and most of 2 so I appreciated your summary. I heard him on NPR and my favorite line is that “taking is the wingman of giving.” At bottom, from what I read, the book is a fundamental critique of capitalism — although you didn’t say that and he only implied it so far in what I’ve read. Depressing but unfortunately too true. While philanthrocapitalists sometimes do good for some people, they take attention away from — and really deny — what changes are really needed.

    Like

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