A Trio of Books on Philanthropy to Get Your Mind Churning

Looking for thought-proving reading on the current state of philanthropy? Well, there has a been a flood of new books that have, in the words of Jeff Bezos in an entirely different context, “turned over the log” of philanthropy so that we can examine what has been hiding in the dark.

Three important books were published in 2018 that implore us to think critically about the role of philanthropy and wealth in our society. Whether you agree with them or not, you will definitely leave with an opinion and be better informed.

 The first is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the Worldby Anand Giridharadas. The journalist dismantles the elites of "big philanthropy" and their institutions that maintain the status quo to their extreme advantage. Their giving is palliative rather reparative; in that it refuses to address the root causes of the suffering they’re trying to alleviate because to do so would threaten their position and lifestyle. He speaks with all of the zeal of the converted as an ex-member of the club of thought leaders and pundits who reinforce the notion to the world’s mega-wealthy that their good works is enough, rather than endure the true sacrifice necessary to enforce systemic change. 

 The second is Just Giving: How Philanthropy is Failing Democracy, by Robert Reich (not the former Secretary of Labor of the same name). The philosopher's argument is similar to Giridharadas' in positing that the immense power the very rich hold in philanthropy is inherently undemocratic and erodes the underpinnings of our aspirations toward justice. He goes further to argue that big philanthropy has a big problem with ethics and unfair uses of power by its being unaccountable, nearly perpetual, and hugely tax-advantaged. Reich also suggests ways to use legislation to bring more equity into the philanthropic sector. 

The final book is Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balanceby Edgar Villanueva. If you read his book last, you might think it will be a balm to the previous two books’ searing critiques. While his tone is gentler, he is no less forceful in his arguments on the extreme inequality in philanthropy and society. What is unique here is that Villanueva assesses our current state of affairs through the lens of colonialism. His thoughtful and unique arguments explain his view that finance and philanthropy have not strayed far from its imperialist beginnings. However, unlike Giridharadas and Reich, Villanueva offers Native American-rooted wisdom to help us rebalance and heal from these centuries-old wounds.

 These three authors will no doubt be remembered as the ones who shone a light on philanthropy and encouraged us to be better.