I have spent all of my professional life in philanthropy, both in leadership positions with nonprofit organizations addressing educational access and with a grantmaking foundation developing philanthropic programs intending to level the playing field for low-income students in their efforts to attain higher education. It is through these lenses that I read Anand Giridharadas’ newest book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

Giridharadas’ thesis is a compelling critique of what he calls “MarketWorld”- a world that he says is simultaneously a network and a community, as well as a culture and state of mind. MarketWorld is guided by a set of beliefs that have overtaken our culture with the idea that “if you really want to change the world, you must rely on the techniques, resources, and personnel of capitalism,” ignoring the possibility that capitalism itself, as it is largely practiced today, might be at least one cause of the problems we are seeking to solve. He calls this “trying to solve the problem with the tools that caused it”. MarketWorld, he says, is a world in which the people in it want to change the world but don’t want their world to change.

Through stories of individuals who have engaged in significant ways including McKinsey consultants, venture capitalists, major philanthropists, and former President Bill Clinton through the work of the Clinton Global Initiative, Winners Take All argues that even with these well-resourced and high-profile philanthropic efforts, structural impact requires significant changes in public policy to address fundamental inequities in our world. Bruno Giussani, Global Curator of TED, articulates in the book that inequality is not about giving back. Inequality is about how you make the money you’re giving back in the first place. Inequality is about the nature of the system and, to fight inequality means to change the system. Philanthropy alone, without changes in public policy and government intervention, has its limitations and may indeed keep America’s “caste” system firmly in place.

This thesis is stirring, sobering, and compelling.  It directly challenges philanthropists, whom I call “impactivists”, and others working for social change within existing systems of power. Giridharadas asks hard questions: Why, for example, should public agendas be set and pressing public problems be solved by the unelected members of the upper class instead of through the public institutions that were created in the public interest? He also points toward an answer: Rather than rely on handouts from the “winners”, we must take on the grueling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly change the world. Justice demands universal participation. He posits that social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.

The book is provocative and leaves me with more questions than answers about how best to advise my clients who are working diligently to find more satisfaction and be more impactful with their civic and philanthropic engagement.  Surely, participating in the political process through advocacy campaigns and by backing political candidates who support one’s philosophical beliefs can be a meaningful and impactful form of engagement.  However, while the work of changing public policy is indeed powerful and important, as Giridharadas lays out in his book, I believe that considerable impact can be achieved through efforts not expressly designed to move the public policy needle.

Similar to the private sector innovation and the venture capital that often funds important research and development work, the non-profit sector can be a locus for creating models of innovation to address pressing needs, issues, and problems in local communities and in the larger world.  Non-profit organizations with bold and visionary leaders, and a disciplined approach to fueling innovation that can ultimately be spread and scaled, can absolutely be difference makers.  As their work matures and is backed by empirical data, it becomes positioned for larger investments from the public sector.  As such, the early stage donors to innovative non-profit organizations can be catalysts in the same way an angel investor or venture funder can be with a business enterprise.

Additionally, supporting more established non-profit organizations with time, talent, treasure, and/or ties is also a vital source for their ongoing sustainability, growth, or continuous improvement.  Engaging with such organizations is absolutely impactful and a “value add” to improving societal conditions.

Private citizens have a fundamental role to play in communities and in the larger democracy.  We need to stimulate more engagement and more strategic impactivism, whether the hard work involves a public policy change dimension or not.  These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and both are critically needed.  My passion and purpose inspires me to work closely with individual people, families, and foundations to help them create a pathway forward for their own unique involvement that builds upon their values and strengths to make meaningful difference. 

Winners Take All has given me food for thought and reason to reflect. I will continue to use the tools I have with my clients with a greater appreciation and context for system biases. We must work with the populations that we intend to serve while recognizing and understanding how the larger systems that are in place may continue to perpetuate injustice and inequality. We can and should continue to do well and do good while recognizing the systems in place that allow us to have wealth and power while continuing to pursue social justice.