Could This Be Modern Philanthropy’s Day of Reckoning?

Nell Edgington

Something pretty interesting is happening in the world of philanthropy.

Anand Giridharadas, journalist and former Aspen Institute fellow, has just written a  pretty major indictment of modern philanthropy in his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas takes big philanthropists to task for reinforcing the social problems they claim to be solving. He’s creating lots (and lots and lots) of buzz, and adding to a growing conversation about how philanthropy needs to change.

While large philanthropic efforts to create social change have grown in recent years, the very problems they claim to be solving are actually getting worse, as Giridharadas explains: “What I started to realize was that giving had become the wingman of taking. Generosity had become the wingman of injustice. ‘Changing the world’ had become the wingman of rigging the system.”

He believes that modern philanthropists have discounted, and sometimes undermined, government as a way to solve social problems. As he puts it: “We need to return to politics as the place we go to change the world. Next time you see a problem, think about what a public, universal, institutional, and democratic solution would be.”

At the same time, modern philanthropists have sometimes muzzled the nonprofit leaders in whom they invest, further ensuring that substantive change doesn’t occur, as Giridharadas explains: ‘[Nonprofit leaders] tell me that they essentially feel hushed and silenced…I’ve had people tell me that after they got funding from a major institution, it was made clear to them that in their tweets they should not use the word ‘inequality’ anymore. They should only talk about ‘opportunity.’”

Giridharadas’ arguments echo many of those from last May’s Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s conference. Many speakers

and panelists at the GEO conference called on philanthropists to take a hard look at whether their investments were actually perpetuating, rather than disrupting, growing inequality (as I reported then):

As Kathleen Enright, President of GEO, said in her opening keynote remarks: ‘If you aren’t recognizing the racial disparities in the solution you are attempting to solve, then you aren’t solving it.’

And many other speakers seemed to agree. Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that many philanthropy-backed education reforms of recent years (like charter schools) have focused on fixing surface problems instead of the root cause: ‘What would our public schools look like if we stopped spending money on trying to make separate equal, and instead integrated our schools?’ And Brian Barnes of TandemEd similarly argued that ‘Philanthropy’s blindspot is that it will only push for change so far as change doesn’t challenge its own interests, positions and reputations.”

In fact many of the speakers and panelists at the GEO conference were asking philanthropists to take a hard look at whether their philanthropy was disrupting or perpetuating the system of inequality from which it was born. Which begs the question: could this be the moment in which philanthropy moves from a band-aid for society’s growing wealth inequality, to a beacon leading society toward a more equitable path?

These conversations are exciting because they have the potential to result in fundamental shifts to the dysfunctions that hold us back from creating lasting social change. In my mind, there are several potential implications to these conversations, including:

  • While we have encouraged nonprofit leaders in recent years to measure whether their work is actually resulting in social change, will we similarly begin encouraging philanthropic leaders to measure whether their philanthropy is actually resulting in less inequality?
  • By extension, then, will we begin to treat nonprofit leaders and those who fund their efforts as equals, and forever lose the power imbalance between those with models for change and those with money to invest in those models?
  • Will modern philanthropists recognize the value of government to achieve social change and begin to forge productive public/private partnerships, as some of their philanthropic predecessors did?
  • Will we as a society begin to recognize that each sector (public, business, philanthropic, nonprofit) has a role to play in creating andsolving social problems?

My hope is that these conversations become more than just talk and that in pulling the veil from the dysfunction we can begin to move society toward greater equality.

Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin

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  • : Nell Edgington