As Anand Giridharadas opened Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Conference earlier this month, the irony was evident: an author famous for his visceral critiques of plutocrats speaking at a stronghold of the same global capitalist elite he derides in his bestseller Winners Take All. The tension was not lost on Giridharadas, who later tweeted, “If we can talk about this at Harvard Business School, the world is a’changing for the better.”
But is it?
Giridharadas is one of a spate of outspoken authors whose recent books shine a critical light on elite do-gooders and those who enable them. Among others, Rob Reich explores how philanthropy cripples democracy in Just Giving; Linsey McGoey delves into the unsavory aspects of the Gates Foundation’s work in No Such Thing as a Free Gift; and Edgar Villanueva argues that philanthropy perpetuates the exploitation of people of color in Decolonizing Wealth. Giridharadas, for his part, calls out the hypocrisies that permeate MarketWorld—his term for a global elite encompassing mega-philanthropists, billionaires, sycophantic thought leaders, complicit politicians, and the like. He advocates for social change fueled by the public sector, shifting from trendy apps to social movements, from charity to justice.
Serious criticism of 21st-century philanthropy has only recently found a major platform. Unlike prior waves of generosity from the ultra-rich, which attracted heavy scrutiny from the public, the most recent outpouring of billionaires’ magnanimity has been broadly praised for years. Generous billionaires attacking the critical global problems that inefficient governments had failed to fix—what could be more noble? The sector’s narrative fit conveniently into the neoliberal worldview that had deeply entrenched itself in our national psyche: the primacy of markets, the wisdom and skill of the one percent, the easy symbiosis of financial and societal gains.
But as the broader neoliberal paradigm has grown increasingly controversial, philanthropy has also come under fire. Giridharadas, Villanueva, and the rest struck a nerve, leading to broad media coverage, numerous jokes at plutocrats’ expense, and hand-wringing among foundation staffers suddenly stricken with guilt.
In light of all this buzz, it may be tempting to celebrate. But let’s not confuse publicity with progress. The world may finally be hearing philanthropy’s gadflies, but few of their targets are listening.
Take the keynote Giridharadas delivered at Harvard’s Social Enterprise Conference. Inviting the journalist to speak at an exclusive gathering of the kinds of people he denounces appears, at first glance, to be a bold step forward. But the conversation, guided by a friendly moderator, remained largely superficial. Giridharadas took only a handful of questions, actually refusing to answer some due to their complexity. Afterward, he signed books and met privately with a small group of students. But conference participants otherwise moved on to the next session. So much for deep engagement with the philanthrocapitalists.
Of course, even after Giridharadas left, his ideas might have lingered, informing the weekend’s subsequent events. But at a panel discussion that immediately followed his talk, a venture capitalist kicked things off by broadly dismissing the public sector, asserting that business is the best way to change the world. For the remainder of the talk, the panelists cheerfully discussed the technical aspects of asking investors for money, their worldview wholly undisturbed by Giridharadas’ arguments.
This pattern held throughout the conference weekend: while there were some exceptions, many speakers didn’t criticize the ideas that Giridharadas advanced so much as simply ignore them. At event after event, experts blithely discussed impact investing, aggressive scaling, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and all the usual accouterments of MarketWorld-style social change without considering the author’s critiques.
Why is it so hard to break through the philanthrocapitalists’ self-assured intransigence? Despite all its flaws, the sector’s status quo is bolstered by a confluence of powerful economic, cultural, and psychological forces, which shield it from even the most incisive criticisms.
One factor is the prevailing Great Man Theory of leadership, which rewards leaders for selling a compelling vision and remaining 100-percent dedicated to their cause. This approach discourages introspection, backtracking, or acknowledging one’s mistakes. So, when a billionaire decides to eradicate polio or transform public education, the very decision to take on such a righteous cause is achievement enough. Those who dare question the details and point out the flaws are deemed petty, contrarian cynics.
Another challenge is the ever-deeper chasm between the decision-makers and their beneficiaries. And today it’s not just the billionaire philanthropists who are unfamiliar with the communities they serve. The largely upper-middle-class cadre of philanthropists’ biggest fans also lives very much apart from those on the receiving end of charity. As Richard Reeves points out in his book Dream Hoarders, Americans in the top 20 percent of the income distribution have ensconced themselves in a comfortably insulated world of wealth, more segregated from poorer fellow citizens than they have been for decades.
At a deeper level, the difficulty of upending philanthropy’s status quo is compounded by the psychological tricks our minds play on us. Confirmation bias, illusory superiority, and fundamental attribution error are just a few of the documented cognitive biases that direct the thinking of the super-rich. Our brains are more likely to take in information that solidifies existing beliefs, filtering out discordant facts. We tend to overestimate our own abilities, downplaying the role of luck in our success. At the same time, we’re likely to blame others for their misfortune, again reinforcing our own superiority. Any human being is vulnerable to these biases; for mega-philanthropists and those in their orbit, they are a powerful deterrent to questioning a status quo that seems both effective and fair.
While it’s possible to overcome such flawed ways of thinking, strong economic incentives discourage philanthropy’s elite from probing too deeply. Hewing to the status quo financially benefits those already on top. As Upton Sinclair famously stated, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” No matter how true—how obvious—the criticisms leveled at philanthrocapitalists, most will remain staunchly unwilling to hear them.
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Given how thoroughly the neoliberal framework has permeated our society, we must recognize that even the most insightful criticism isn’t going to change philanthropy. It may make the critic feel good. It may fire up a sympathetic audience and even deliver an uncomfortable twinge of guilt to its target. But, all too often, the effects stop there: guilt is suppressed, ever-shorter attention spans shift, and the status quo perseveres.
For criticism to lead to change, the do-well-by-doing-good crowd must engage in substantive dialogue with their detractors. They need to dive into the moral and practical complexities of ethical social change; perspectives need to shift. The critics, too, might consider potential flaws in their arguments and refine their theories. Only through such authentic interaction can we move closer to a more equitable approach to changing the world.
Unfortunately, our society is short on appropriate venues for engaging with our detractors, shunning the slow, unglamorous work of reconciling contradictory perspectives for the immediate gratification of feeding supporters a stream of clever one-liners.
On social media, we tend to connect with and follow like-minded individuals. When perspectives clash, the platforms’ short-form conventions encourage the oversimplification of complex issues and often reduce debate to trading insults.
Mass media is not much better. Philanthrocapitalism’s critics make brief appearances on radio and television to answer a few broad questions and maybe, if we’re lucky, have their arguments briefly challenged by the hosts. Commercial breaks cut in long before any serious discussion has occurred. And, as on the internet, the audience is already likely to be sympathetic to the speaker’s views, reflecting the ever-growing political polarization of media outlets.
Traditional conferences, with their pick-your-own-path format, also make it easy for attendees to steer clear of unfriendly ideas, a physical analogue to the media’s echo chambers. Presentations are problematic, too: when you place a critic on a stage for an hour, it’s easy for the audience to dismiss his or her ideas.
It’s undeniably difficult to have the types of hard conversations required to change modern philanthropy. But it’s not impossible. Elite institutions—foundations, corporations, universities, hosts on the conference circuit—have the resources to create room for such dialogue.
For instance, instead of an hour-long talk, why not plan a daylong, even multi-day workshop? Instead of asking members to simply listen to criticism and move on, a discussion format could allow both sides to voice their opinions and hash out their differences. Participants could set goals for incorporating new approaches into their grantmaking or business pursuits, with regular follow-ups to ensure progress has been made.
In the short term, such steps can force philanthropy’s current and future leaders to seriously grapple with criticism and begin adjusting their work accordingly. To ensure that new perspectives “stick” in the long term, detractors of the prevailing neoliberal paradigm must be given permanent places in classrooms, boardrooms, and other places where power is concentrated.
I know this may seem utopian. For the reasons discussed above, philanthrocapitalists are not exactly champing at the bit to engage with their attackers. This means that those of us who want to see a more equitable and just model of philanthropy must keep the pressure on. Don’t praise them for organizing short, perfunctory appearances by token critics. Don’t let them off the hook when they pretend to engage with criticism and then continue with business as usual.
Instead, we must hold elite do-gooders to account. The high-profile critics whose books have gained them prominence have a particularly strong responsibility to use their platforms to demand that philanthropy’s leaders engage with them. But all of us can play a part. We can do it with our votes, supporting politicians with clear plans for dismantling the dominance of the super-rich. We can also do it with our dollars, refusing to fall for corporations’ whitewashing or greenwashing of unethical behavior with flimsy CSR programs.
We’ve taken the first step towards transforming philanthropy for the better—now, we must keep the momentum going, ensuring that we do not grow complacent when the elites throw us a bone.
Correction: This article has been altered following an email exchange with Anand Giridharadas about the description of the day’s events.