Winners Take All: A Wake-Up Call for Philanthropists

by Mark R. Miller

The new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is creating a buzz in the philanthropy world, and not because philanthropists and corporate leaders like what it has to say. Mario Marino, founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, described the book as a “gut punch” that “will generate many uncomfortable, unquestionably important conversations in our sector and beyond.”

Author and former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas makes the provocative case that rich and powerful philanthropists are interested in fighting for justice and equality, just as long as it doesn’t threaten the systems that put them in power and keep them there. Instead of seeking to do more good through top-down philanthropy, he argues, corporate leaders would help society more by doing less harm. He says that by prioritizing profits, resisting taxes on inheritances and financial transactions, and negotiating tax breaks in the communities they operate, for example, corporate leaders have contributed to the inequality that leads to the social problems that they then claim to address through their charitable activities.

The book is full of challenging insights for people who work in philanthropy and social change, and Chapter 6 on “Generosity and Justice” should be mandatory reading for anyone who is working to make social change. It shares the complex perspective of Darren Walker, an African American who was raised in poverty by a single mother in Louisiana, worked his way through school, had a successful career in finance, and served as vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation before becoming president of the Ford Foundation, where he oversees a $13 billion endowment and $600 million in annual grant-making.

As he began his third year at the Ford Foundation in 2015, he created an uproar by publishing a public letter titled “Toward a New Gospel of Wealth.” (Consider it a prequel to Winner Take All.) He challenged his employees, partners, and fellow philanthropists “to openly acknowledge and confront the tension inherent in a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system…..We need to interrogate the fundamental root causes of inequality, even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be impacted.”The letter stunned many of Walker’s “elite” friends, who enjoyed the same galas and other high-profile gatherings. As Giridharadas put it, Walker had “broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

“It is timely that we openly acknowledge and confront the tension inherent in a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system.”

Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Giridharadas states very clearly that many of the people he references in the book — corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, “thought leaders,” and consultants — are decent and smart people who want to make change and improve lives. But “many of them are trapped in what they cannot fully see. Many of them believe they are changing the world when they may instead — or also — be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.”

Why does this matter? Giridharadas says that without even realizing it, Americans are entrusting the people who benefit the most from the status quo to assume leadership for reforming the status quo.  He says we need to ask ourselves if we want the decisions that affect all of us to be led by government representatives who are elected and accountable to us, or by “wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.”

The book is sparking healthy discussions and introspection here at the de Beaumont Foundation, because like many of the organizations Giridharadas challenges, we are funded with an endowment created by a successful entrepreneur. Our CEO, Brian Castrucci, acknowleges that reality, and is willing to ask the hard questions — and accept the hard answers — about the forces that influence our decision-making and our ultimate impact.

The foundation’s focus is on improving public health, and while we recognize the importance of the private sector and applaud the growing interest in societal change and justice, we believe that government is ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of all citizens. We’ve seen over the years that we can make the biggest impact by working with existing organizations and systems to address the root causes that lead to poor health. We agree with Giridharadas that private dollars, top-down solutions, and “thought leadership” – especially in a vacuum – are insufficient to bring about lasting societal change. And they bring with them inherent biases and, often, self-serving motivations. That’s why one of our most important priorities is to support and strengthen governmental public health, especially at the state and local levels.

Just as healthcare interventions will never be able to address the factors that make people sick or prevent them from achieving their optimal health, top-down philanthropic solutions will never make lasting change without addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality, including those they benefit from personally and professionally.

The inequality gap is particularly striking in health. As Giridhardas points out, “American scientists make the most important discoveries in medicine and genetics and publish more biomedical research than those of any other country, but the average American’s health remains worse and slower-improving than that of peers in other rich countries, and in certain years life expectancy actually declines.” And wealthy American men now live 15 years longer than poor American men, whose life expectancy is similar to men in Sudan and Pakistan.

From an income perspective, since 1980 the average pretax income of the top 10th of Americans has doubled, and the salary of the top 1 percent has nearly tripled. But with all of these advances, over the past 35 years, the income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost the same. In other words, our vast growth has had no impact on the average pay of more than 100 million Americans. This inequality gap in income is directly related to the gap in Americans’ health. We need everyone at the table to build healthy communities, especially our government leaders.

Giridharadas’s book comes at an especially defining time in American politics and philanthropy, and provides an important reminder that generosity does not equal justice. Achieving justice, Giridharadas says, will require the people and organizations with the most power to have the courage to not just talk about root causes of inequality, but upset systems that benefit them.

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Written by Mark Miller

Mark Miller is the Vice President of Communications at the de Beaumont Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mmiller20910.