#NonprofitBookClub: Winners Take All

Welcome back to the second iteration of Next Stage’s #NonprofitBookClub!

This month, we’re reading Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. I know – quite a bold title. But in the spirit of Josh’s column in the Biscuit, “Breaking Good,” Next Stage is sparking more bold conversations in 2019. What better way to do that than by reviewing a book that is about the challenges inherent in American philanthropy and the nonprofit funding model itself?

First of all, if you haven’t read this book yet (which was published in August 2018), it comes highly recommended. Winners Take All was suggested to me by a friend I know through Startingbloc, a social innovation fellowship that educates, inspires and connects emerging leaders to drive impact across sectors. Articles and videos featuring Giridharadas, a New York Times columnist, had been popping up across my social media platforms for years (if you haven’t seen it, his speech from the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum in 2015 is worth a watch), and I eventually got around to cracking open the book earlier this year.

The central question posed by Winners Take All focuses on the “new gilded age” of philanthropy, led by increasingly socially-minded business elites – do their market-friendly philanthropic efforts actually have impact on our nation’s entrenched social problems, or do they merely reinforce the status quo of growing wealth inequality and stratification?

It shouldn’t come as a shock to the reader, given the book’s title, that Giridharadas believes that market-driven philanthropy does not present real solutions to our most intractable challenges. In fact, he argues that “win-win” social change walks hand in hand with the perpetuation of a system that, by design, protects the same elites who position themselves as change-makers.

The book introduces us to a series of players in what he calls MarketWorld – including a former president, philanthropists, leaders from Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, social innovators and entrepreneurs – individuals and corporations that operate under the ethos of “doing well and doing good.” Through these stories, Giridharadas illustrates what he believes to be the incompatibility of their “extreme taking,” or the detrimental impacts of their day jobs, with their “extreme giving,” which he refers to as “virtuous side hustles.” What he’s saying is that the five-mile run they took this morning doesn’t negate the entire pizza they ate last night.

I see his point, but in my opinion, the more important argument presented in the book is about the growing centralization of this “change-making” within the private sector elite. Trendy market-driven solutions like impact investing and social entrepreneurism have shifted the onus of social and economic justice out of the hands of the public sector and government institutions, essentially handicapping our participatory democratic system. Nonprofits, Giridharadas argues in interviews about Winners Take All, must advocate for transformative change led by the public sector, advocating for systemic reform in place of charity, social enterprise and “doing good.”

These conversations could not come at a more critical time. According to a 2017 study by Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies, The Road to Zero Wealth, if the US racial wealth gap remains unaddressed, Black median household wealth will fall to zero by 2053, while white median household wealth is projected to rise to $137,000 by that same year.

Yes – you read that correctly. Zero. That takes a minute to sink in. In an era when we are perhaps more generous and charitable than ever before, disparities along racial and class lines continue to grow at an alarming pace. Something needs to change. But what?

My primary challenge with Winners Take All is that the book does a poor job of facilitating constructive discussion about solutions to these systemic fallacies. I did a bit of online research and found some emerging conversations about liberatory philanthropy and restorative investing – fresh strategies that reconcile philanthropy’s complicity in the systemic nature of wealth inequality. These justice-oriented approaches to the management and investment of endowments promote decision-making processes that restore equity. In other words, how do we get at the root of the problem instead of throwing our money at the symptoms?

Ultimately, liberatory philanthropy and restorative investing require a significant shift in the way we approach the role of capital and philanthropic institutions. According to Rodney Foxworth, founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, “the goal for foundations should no longer be to accumulate wealth… [but to] change their way of operating by redistributing wealth, democratizing power, and shifting economic control to communities.”

These localized approaches to social change – egalitarian, democratic collaborations and institutions that drive transformation from the ground up – are starting to show up in Charlotte in some really exciting ways. One example is the West Side Community Land Trust, Charlotte’s first land banking approach to permanently conserving our city’s affordable housing stock. Another is United Way of Central Carolinas’ United Neighborhoods Block Building Grants Program, which supports capacity-building for community-based organizations to lead comprehensive, resident-driven community planning in neighborhoods throughout Charlotte.

In Next Stage’s work with our nonprofit partners, we learn about new collective projects and justice-oriented “inside-out” efforts all the time. This gives me so much hope for our city.

Have you read Winners Take All? What did you think? Is there space in Charlotte for a deeper conversation about evolving the way we approach philanthropy and charitable involvement in our community into a groundswell of grassroots-led, authentic social change and reform?

Next month, I’m reading New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World–and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. Shout out to Kelly Brooks from Share Good for the recommendation. Please feel free to read along and join the conversation in April.

As always, if you have any suggestions for the #NonprofitBookClub reading list, please let me know!

Additional Reading:

The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan
Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better 
by Rob Reich

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