Jillian Wagenheim, Founder & Principal, Sertus Consulting
Farrah Azizi, Private Philanthropy Advisor, Give Great Group
Possibly one of the most anticipated conversations we have hosted to date, in March 2019 the Book Club discussed Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All. An equally thought-provoking yet divisive read, participants all shared strong reactions to the author’s messages. Following a growing cognizance which acknowledges, and often critiques, the massive accumulation of wealth among an ever smaller subset of individuals (the ‘1%’), Giridharadas stands out in vociferous opposition. In particular, his writings challenge the behaviors and giving of the ultra-wealthy and its outsized effect they have on individuals and larger systems at work.
Giridharadas asserts that the ultra-wealthy manufacture a philanthropic ‘glow’ that insulates them from the critiques they rightly deserve. This ‘glow’ further perpetuates a system that serves the ultra-wealthy and compounds inequality. He argues that any giving, even philanthropy that does some good, actually does harm, as it blinds people to the inequities of broken systems. He challenges the notion that philanthropy and philanthropists are altruistic in nature and instead suggests that all philanthropy is self-serving at its core. Lastly, Giridharadas expresses disappointment at the lack of citizen oversight and participation in our government; this abdication is how he feels the ultra-wealthy have been able to overstep and become despots in their own right.
In discussions of the book amongst colleagues actively engaged in the philanthropic sector, many found the book’s tone off-putting. Despite that, there was agreement that many of his challenges merit reflection and further discussion. Many felt that his message of participatory democracy and citizen engagement would be best received by next generation individuals or those deeply enmeshed in equity work. There were several references highlighting other work of this nature, including Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth and David Callahan’s The Givers, both of which address the denouncement of the cult of the mega wealthy as well as the perpetuation of systems that enforce this paradigm.
While his messages may not be for every philanthropist, his call for collaboration, listening, and meaningful engagement can be incorporated in our work today. Supporting a learning culture within your family, your company, and your community can open ourselves to a deepening of conversations, greater understanding of the true inequities of our world, and how philanthropy can be utilized to right those wrongs. There are also several individuals that we can turn to for inspiration and direction who fall outside Giridharadas’ broad strokes, such as philanthropists who are working collaboratively across sectors and those that are bringing beneficiaries to the center of conversations.
Regardless of one’s impressions of the author and the books messages, the book provides a good reminder for all of us to explore from where we come and upon whose shoulders we stand.