Alex Counts: “Winners Take All” Is Forceful and Unexpectedly Balanced, but Lacking

The CFI Advisory Council member summarizes Anand Giridharadas’s key points and reflects on his non-profit leadership experience.

Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World has shaken up the philanthropy world this year; everyone is talking about his critique. I promised myself I would approach it with an open mind, but with its caustic title and subtitle, I figured I would be in constant rebuttal mode as I worked my way through it. However, Winners Take All was considerably more balanced and nuanced than I had expected. Despite some gaps and omissions that I will explore below, the author made some very important points that those of us in the philanthropy world need to come to grips with. To wit:

  • By adopting the language and mental models of business – e.g., optimization, profit as a proxy for effectiveness, quickly distilling “actionable” (and often relatively easy) steps to be taken when confronting a societal problem, and measuring everything – we have impoverished our ability to think about, talk about, and respond to societal problems.
  • Too often, those of us in the philanthropy world who are in a position to speak truth to power opt to play it safe by self-censoring (or “pulling our punches”). In other words, we sanitize how we describe societal problems, what and who caused them, and the best ways to solve them – in part to ensure that our organizations are funded and that we get invited back to the elite gatherings of the “do good” world. To take one example, we speak much more about growing economic opportunity, catalyzing entrepreneurship, and reducing poverty than about the alarming and accelerating increase in inequality.
  • This self-censorship causes us to avoid assigning blame to those people and institutions that play a role causing the problems all around us, or saying much of anything that would make the wealthy feel uncomfortable, much less culpable. We talk much more about so-called “win-win” strategies while neglecting trade-offs; we applaud clever solutions while sidelining difficult discussions of root causes and bad actors. If a solution doesn’t allow for elite “impact investors” to earn financial returns while doing good, it is somehow suspect.
  • Many very wealthy donors – convinced by their success in business that they know best how to solve society’s problems (despite having contributed to creating those problems in some cases) – have some problematic tendencies. For example, they regularly create their own philanthropic operating arms and think tanks that reflect their own biases and worldviews, leading to duplication of capacity and fragmentation. As a result, they often neglect to learn from and support experienced organizations with deep and longstanding ties to communities being impacted by major societal problems.
  • People who care about global issues often do so from a safe distance and don’t engage nearly enough with true experts, credible grassroots organizations, and impacted people. They would benefit not only from doing more of those three things, but also from getting involved as active volunteers, donors, and citizens in their local communities – engagement that could better ground their thinking and action and also serve as an important reality check for them.

Reflections of a Non-Profit Leader and Citizen

As I read the book, I reflected on my own experience as a nonprofit leader and citizen. In retrospect, there were times that I did pull my punches and avoid certain sensitive topics. At other times, I was willing to be a lonely voice speaking uncomfortable perspectives. One example of the latter was writing a blog post about how the impact investing community should learn from the experience of the microfinance movement by, for example, more clearly acknowledging trade-offs between profit and social impact.

While Giridharadas tends to put people in either the “elite-friendly” or “speak truth to power” camps, my own experience – as well as those of the organizations and coalitions I have been part of – is much more complex. In failing to fully acknowledge this complexity, the author runs aground at times. He singles out the Clinton Global Initiative held in 2016 for criticism, some of which is deserved, but he fails to note that people such as Paul Farmer, not someone normally associated with punch pulling, spoke there with great passion and eloquence (which I tweeted about at the time).

To take another example, some deep pocketed donors must be backing prominent activist (i.e., truth-speaking) organizations such as Greenpeace, Partners in Health, and Action Aid (to name a few). Yet the author spends little time exploring who those people are, what motivates them, and how they could be models for others whose natural tendency is towards incremental, win/win, overly clever, and reformist approaches.

Let’s take the microfinance movement as a case study. There are ample grounds to criticize it based in Giridharadas’ analysis. For example, global banks and financial institutions were rarely rebuked or even mildly challenged by name by microfinance supporters about their roles in financial exclusion or recent financial crises.

On the other hand, microfinance icon Muhammad Yunus has forcefully argued before all manner of convenings that the policies and practices of traditional banks has led to “financial apartheid” and that his own strategy in designing Grameen Bank was to observe how banks operated and then do exactly the opposite. Yunus has also called for making credit a human right and for rethinking the fundamentals of capitalism, which he says is in crisis in part due to growing inequality – which he rightly calls out as dangerous and unacceptable. The Microcredit Summit Campaign routinely amplified Yunus’s messages during its two decades as the largest and most inclusive forum for microfinance professionals, regulators, researchers, and activists.

Other microfinance leaders are usually more circumspect, but they have often made the point that their grassroots financial institutions survived recent financial crises better than more traditional banks due to their more realistic, more humane, and better-grounded underwriting policies. These are indirect but still powerful critiques of the status quo.

The book’s concluding recommendations are a mixed bag. The author argues strongly and effectively for systems change rather than nibbling around the edges of today’s big problems. He advocates for a democratic process leading to robust government regulation of wrongdoing companies through the messy and win/lose dynamic that politics often represents. In terms of a path forward, however, that’s about it.

Oddly, much of the book’s closing argument is articulated in the epilogue by Chiara Cordelli, an Italian political philosopher based at the University of Chicago, rather than by the author himself. Her judgements include this one: even people working hard (as volunteers or as professional staff) on innovative solutions to – or on alleviating the symptoms of – societal problems are still complicit with those problems unless they actively and contemporaneously work on “root causes” and “systems change” through the political system. I did not find this convincing, and regardless, I would have preferred it if Giridharadas had the final word.

An Agenda for Improving Philanthropy

While the case for more and better government action to address root causes is defensible and to some degree unarguable, it is woefully incomplete and in the short term, probably unrealistic. His singular focus on this response may limit his influence, and was unnecessary. Indeed, throughout the book, many solutions that are incremental and (yes) “actionable” are hinted at but are never fully explored. Taken together, I believe that they represent the core of a potent agenda for improving philanthropy. Five examples:

  1. Taking a page from an underappreciated aspect of an earlier generation of philanthropists including John D. Rockefeller, billionaires should set philanthropy priorities but then delegate most grant-making decisions to a diverse group of technocrats and activists with relevant expertise.
  2. Individual and institutional donors should give more support to groups with hard-earned expertise in attacking societal problems and with credibility among impacted populations. This should include these organizations’ advocacy work that is informed by their service delivery efforts. There should be less fad-driven funding of clever approaches dreamed up in Silicon Valley, and more risk-taking and delegation of priorities to credible organizations.
  3. Similarly, more funding should go towards providing endowments for – and amplifying the messages of – true “public intellectuals” who feel no constraints when explaining the root causes of key societal problems, describing tradeoffs, and naming those who are worsening problems due to their inattention, wishful thinking, or excessive profiteering.
  4. Philanthropy conferences and forums should include many more dissonant and activist voices on stage and in conference planning and more debates with multiple sides of key issues presented in civil but forceful ways that at times will make the elites in audience squirm. Especially in the major philanthropy conferences, set aside time to acknowledge trade-offs in areas where win-win solutions may not exist. Publish key themes from these private, invitation-only gatherings in order to solicit public comment which organizers can respond to in a variety of ways, including in how they plan future sessions.
  5. Encourage more “globalists” – whether they be donors, thought leaders, conference planners or grant-seekers – to get involved in their local communities as engaged volunteers and citizens. Let their insights from those experiences inform their thinking and action in the public sphere. (For Americans wondering where to start, let me suggest the highly substantive, challenging and rewarding Court Appointed Special Advocate program, as it has enriched and balanced my lifelong engagement in global social justice issues.)

Anand Giridharadas has, with his new book, made a forceful and often unexpectedly balanced contribution to the debates about philanthropy, impact investing, the privatization of societal problem solving, and the pitfalls of thought leadership. His central call to action for bringing about transformative change, while valid, strikes me as incomplete and perhaps unrealistic for the foreseeable future.

I wish he had given more thought to some of the powerful intermediate steps that can be taken in the direction of sparking a more realistic societal conversation about private philanthropy and the public good. Perhaps, if taken, they could even pave the way for some of the more profound changes that he believes are desperately needed.

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