A Gut Punch

During the Jewish High Holidays, Lowell’s rabbi implored his congregation to spend less time with eyes fixed on our algorithmically narrowed news feeds and more time looking for new perspectives. In response, Lowell picked up Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, a book that was likely to challenge key beliefs that he and Mario hold about social change.

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The book didn’t disappoint. The author, former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, paints with a broad brush and maybe only one or two of the 50 shades of gray. But he has produced a provocative picture that will generate many uncomfortable, unquestionably important conversations in our sector and beyond.

It’s hard to do full justice to Giridharadas’s 270-page argument in a quick summary, but here’s an ol’ college try: Most social-change efforts led and supported by elite American business leaders and philanthropists aren’t resulting in real social change. In fact, they’re undermining social change, because they’re sustaining, rather than addressing, our country’s radically unequal status quo. As Giridharadas puts it, “When elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is—above all, to present it as something that [should not] change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.” In other words, those of us in the social-change business may claim our philanthropic efforts are addressing “root causes,” but ultimately we’re not—unless we’re among those who are brave enough to advocate for fundamental changes in the way our economy and society operate.

Giridharadas believes Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, is one of the very few philanthropic leaders who can summon this kind of courage. In his writings—if not always in his speeches to elite audiences—Walker has broken these sacred taboos: “Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem,” in the words of Giridharadas. The rest of us—including donors, philanthropoids, and social-change consultants—get skewered in this book. At times, Giridharadas sounds like a Luther the Anger Translator for the social sector, erupting with disdain for elites “who speak of themselves as liberators of mankind” but are in fact doing everything in their considerable power to “sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools.” This book isn’t tough love. It’s a gut punch.

It’s tempting to nitpick elements of Giridharadas’s thesis that don’t jibe with our experiences. But that would be, to use one of Mario’s favorite expressions, “majoring on minors.” Instead, we want to wrestle with this book and let it prompt real introspection. Our sentiments echo those of our colleague Mark Kramer, who wrote in SSIR, “From my perspective, it is a … sobering experience to read this book, and it imparts new insights into the limitations and compromises inherent in the way I and many of my friends and colleagues have chosen to work for social progress.”

Needless to say, it’s not a good feeling to get punched in the gut. But in this case, that feeling is prompting introspective questions rather than anger or fear. And that’s the perfect zone for learning how we can improve our own performance.

Keep the faith (and reason),

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

  • David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, tackles some of Giridharadas’s arguments in “‘Build Capital.’ Inside the World of Venture Philanthropy,” an insightful look at the lessons that have emerged from two decades of experience at New Profit, NewSchools Venture Fund, Venture Philanthropy Partners, and Social Venture Partners. Callahan has an optimistic take on venture philanthropy and its focus on providing the type of unrestricted capital and beyond-the-check support that private investors understand to be critical to growth and impact. “If you dig into the wide range of grantees backed by a diverse set of venture philanthropy groups over two decades, you’ll find that this movement has never been about a wholesale application of market ideology to social problems,” Callahan wrote. “Many critics and reformers in the nonprofit world have long agitated for grantmakers to do many of the things that venture philanthropy groups have done from the start.”
  • Our dear friend Billy Shore issued a powerful call to action in The Chronicle of Philanthropy to “Stop Sitting on the Sidelines, Nonprofits, and Get Out the Vote.” Shore, the founder and executive chairman of Share Our Strength, makes his plea in nonpartisan but far-from-dispassionate terms: “November’s midterm congressional elections may be among the most consequential in American history and could have more impact on nonprofits and the people they serve than any in recent memory…. The reach and influence nonprofits have are valuable assets. Not to deploy them on behalf of a stronger civic society is not only counterproductive but also civically and morally irresponsible.”
  • Our hats are off to the Fund for Shared Insight co-chairs Fay Twersky and Kathy Reich and managing director Melinda Tuan for the work Katie Smith Milway documented in “Funding Feedback.” Milway highlighted the Fund for Shared Insight’s unique governance (“its funders share leadership with equal voice, despite unequal stakes”), uncommon level of collaboration (“78 funders collaborating with 184 nonprofits to develop and test a signature feedback tool”), and real-time, embedded learning (“Shared Insight introduced another element of governance consistent with its goals: formal and continuous self-scrutiny to enable quick detection of what was and wasn’t working”). We’re excited to see this important effort generate positive peer pressure for listening and learning practices consistent with high performance.
  • The Leap Ambassadors Community recently released Graceful Exit: Succession Planning for High-Performing CEOs” to help with one of the most important responsibilities of a nonprofit board of any size. Succession planning is often associated with feelings of angst, fear, and sometimes even outright panic. “Graceful Exit” shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. Bob Rath, who served as CEO of Our Piece of the Pie for 23 years, initiated a conversation among Leap Ambassadors by sharing his personal succession journey with refreshing honesty. His post triggered Ken Berger, Chip Edelsberg, Linda Johanek, Bridget LairdAmy MorgensternLou Salza, and Rick Wartzman to share their own stories and advice.
  • When Lowell attended public school in Montgomery County, MD, in the 1980s, it was glaringly obvious that the county’s gifted and talented programs had little if any focus on diversity, equity, or inclusion. So he was delighted to read “Rethinking What Gifted Education Means, and Whom It Should Serve,” a good-news story in The New York Times. The article, by reporter Dana Goldstein, describes Montgomery County’s smart, comprehensive, and effective efforts to open up gifted programs to students beyond the likely, affluent suspects—and help these students succeed once they get in. “In 2016, 23 percent of students in the county’s elementary school magnet programs for the highly gifted were black and Hispanic, in a district where half the students belong to those groups. This year, 31 percent of the students selected for the Centers for Enriched Studies were black or Hispanic. A fifth came from low-income families, nearly double the percentage who were accepted two years ago.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Oct 4-5 — Washington, DC
Fourth Annual Feedback Summit; Feedback Labs

Oct 10-12 — Hartford, CT
Re-envisioning our Field: Advancing Racial Equity and Leading Innovation in Capacity Building” conference; Alliance for Nonprofit Management

Oct 29-Nov 3 — Cleveland, OH
Evaluation 2018“; American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) annual conference

Nov 14-16 — Los Angeles, CA
Upswell 2018” annual conference; Independent Sector

Nov 15-17 — Austin, TX
From Relief to Resilience: How Philanthropy, Nonprofits and Volunteers Bridge the Gap Between Crisis and Sustainability” conference; ARNOVA