Welcome to the inaugural issue of the book blog!
We are starting off with a 35,000 foot view of the sector, featuring books by three authors of great power and persuasion:
- Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas
- Lean Impact, Ann Mei Chang
- The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates
Critiquing the world’s biggest donors
by Gail Picco (June 5, 2020)
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas, Knopf, 304 pp., August 28, 2018, $31.67
In the best-selling book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, New York Times reporter and former consultant for McKinsey & Company Anand Giridharadas undertakes a sweeping re-framing of philanthropy.
As Giridharadas, and others, suggest we live in a world where eight billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire population of the United States. The resulting inequity means the wealth generated by a strong economy is benefiting people who are already wealthy, and that those benefits are coming out of the pockets of poor and middle class people in the form of wage stagnation, contract and part-time work, and the diminishment of the social safety net.
In the wake of this growing inequity, says Giridharadas, the rich are “groomed to be self-appointed leaders of social change” even as their behaviour creates the inequity, disruption and uncertainty that has caused the societal disruption in the first place.
“Business language [has] … conquered the language of social change [and] pushed out an older language of power, justice and rights,” he says.
Socially minded financiers at Goldman Sachs seek to change the world through win-win situations like “green bonds” and “impact investing.” Tech companies like Uber and Airbnb cast themselves as empowering the poor by allowing them to chauffeur people around or rent out spare rooms …”
In a world conquered by market thinking, Giridharadas writes that we’ve come to a point where philanthropy has to be a “win-win” for the donor and the recipient.
Following that line of thinking, what “once might have been advocated purely on compassionate grounds [helping refugees created by the war in Syria] … one of the great humanitarian disasters since the Second World needed to be marketed as an opportunity for the helpers too.”
He profiles one former Facebook employee who wanted to help people attempting to grapple with the effects of part time or contract work on the predictability of income. (Fifty percent of new jobs fall into this category.)
Her start-up “wanted very much to help but thought it best to help in a way that would create some opportunity for them too.” They developed a phone app called Even that, for $260 a year, would hold back a percentage of a worker’s bank deposit so it would be available the week when she received less pay.
The app’s creators interviewed prospective users such as a single mother trying to manage her job and education, and felt bad about her parents having to pay for her child’s diapers, a Nike store employee who says her bosses kept her hours just shy of full time so they didn’t have to pay benefits, a grocery store stocker working hours that fluctuated weekly who couldn’t afford the gas to pick up her grandchildren and who spoke of the depression that gripped her.
Or the trained massage therapist who worked at a corporate massage chain and who, like so many modern workers “bore much of what was once properly considered a company’s risk.” If the company didn’t get bookings, her pay was cut. Some weeks, she made $700, other weeks, she made $90. “I don’t deal well with a lot of stress,” she said. “… I go immediately straight to full stress, and then I have a panic attack … So I have to try to get medication, but the medication is $60 a month.”
“If you wanted to feel like you have a safety net for the first time in your life, Even is the answer,” the company website said.
“It was an answer that existed entirely separately from the public and government,” writes Giridharadas.
The idea of the win-win economy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Giridharadas suggests. It is supported by a whole industry of “thought leaders” who attend Ted talks, conferences and “idea festivals” on world problems that are sponsored by the wealthy and big business, and who are willing to confine their thinking to “improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults.” These thought leaders have replaced “critics”, who are looking at system-wide problems that need multi-layer and often politically-based solutions.
According to Giridhadaras, being a thought leader, as opposed to a critic, takes three steps:
- Focusing on the victim, not the perpetrator (“Instead of trying to punish people who’ve caused harm, you’ll be more likely to be able to help people who are harmed.”)
- Personalize the political. (“If you want to be seen as a thought leader instead of a critic, your job is to help the public see problems as personal and individual dramas as opposed to collective and systemic ones.”)
- Be constructively actionable. (A thought leader, as opposed to a critic, suggests possible solutions—an app, meditative practice or a “scalable” model.)
Bruno Giussani, who Giridharadas profiles in the book, is one of a small handful of people who curate Ted talks, a mainstage for today’s thought leaders. He told Giridharadas, “a critic in the traditional mold is often a loser figure—a thorn, an outside agitator, a rumpled cynic … People like winners, and we don’t like losers, and this is the reality … If I put losers on stage, I become one of them because nobody comes to my conference.”
As part of his case that ultra-wealthy philanthropists often “win” through their largesse, Giridharadas uses the example of the Sackler family (worth about $13 billion according to Forbes), who made their fortune through ownership of Purdue Pharma and, in particular, from selling OxyContin, a drug that has been designated as the cause, with other opioids, of more than 200,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1999. Purdue settled a law suit with the state of West Virginia for $635 million in 2007.
Around the world, there are dozens of art institutions with wings named after the Sacklers. Giridharadas suggests their high profile philanthropy helped their business escape public scrutiny.
Modern philanthropists, he writes, behave like “after-the-fact benevolence justifies anything-goes capitalism.” And the reality of the “arsonist as firefighter” has contributed, in Giridharadas’ estimation, to the populist uprising against the “elites.”
In Winners Take All, Giridharadas says taxes that support the public good have more benefit than philanthropy that’s specifically focused on the philanthropist’s definition of a problem.
And the ideas contained in the book, which Giridharadas is supporting with appearances on cable news and on a book tour, appear to be resonating in the public consciousness.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museumin New York have stopped accepting donations from the Sackler family. They are joined, among others, by the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Then, on April 18 2019, when the world was stunned by the images of the extensive damage at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and businesses such as Apple and luxe magnates who own L’Oreal, Chanel and Dior, pledged $1 billion in one day, there were gushes of praise throughout the world. But the praise was almost immediately followed by some critics, especially in France, who said, “the mega-donations prove social problems could be quickly addressed if the wealthy were motivated to do so.”
On May 18, 2019, when billionaire Robert Smith said he was going to pay the student debt of 450 student at Morehouse College, The New York Times also penned an editorial, Charity Won’t Solve the Student Debt.
For people who work in the non-profit sector and who are interested in being “disruptive,” this well-written and comprehensive book is a tough, but necessary, read and, perhaps, augers a backlash that has yet to see its crest.
The personal evolution of a global philanthropist
by Gail Picco (June 5, 2020)
The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates, Flatiron Books, April 23, 2019, 288 pp., $19.99
In The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates’ explains that the road to her belief in women’s empowerment as the single most important thing we can do to reduce inequity was not a direct route. And she uses the analogy of an airplane leaving the tarmac and taking flight as comparable to the power of an informed analysis.
Gates attended a Catholic high school in Dallas, Texas, graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, worked at IBM during her summer breaks, and was an early employee of a “smallish” software company called Microsoft. It was there she met Bill Gates. (“He urged me to read The Great Gatsby, his favourite novel, and I had already had, twice. Maybe that’s when he knew he had met his match.”) They were married on New Year’s Day in 1994.
Twenty-five years later, after emerging as one of the world’s most important philanthropists, Gates describes herself as an “ardent feminist,” believing that “everyone women should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential.” But it has been a process for her.
This isn’t something I could have could said with total conviction even ten years ago. It came to me only after many years of listening to women—often women in extreme hardship whose stories taught me what leads to inequity and how human beings flourish.”
As co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest deliverer of philanthropy, Gates sets the foundation’s direction and priorities. Back in 1994, it would have been hard for her, or anyone, to fathom the global role she would end up playing and the ramifications of her personal evolution.
But in the 1990s, she and her husband’s growing network were alerting them to serious issues of childhood deaths in developing countries. “Children were dying in poor countries from conditions that no kids died from in the United States,” she writes.
Saving children’s lives was the goal that launched our global work, and our first big investment came in vaccines. We were horrified to learn that vaccines developed in the United States would take fifteen to twenty years to reach poor children in the developing world, and that diseases were killing kids in the developing world were not on the agenda of researchers [in the U.S.]. It was the first time we saw clearly what happens when there’s no market incentive to serve poor children. Millions of kids die.”
Their first global initiative, to save children under five, began in 1999. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in the year 2000. Its impact has been undeniable.
“The number of children dying before their fifth birthdays each year has fallen below nine million for the first time on record,” the New York Times wrote, reporting on a Unicef study in September 2009. This is “a significant milestone in the global effort to improve children’s chances of survival, particularly in the developing world … Wealthy nations, international agencies and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have committed billions of dollars to the effort.”
“Taken together, they have helped cut the number of children under 5 who died last year to 8.8 million — the lowest since records were first kept in 1960, Unicef said — from 12.5 million in 1990.”
Not surprisingly, given her background, Melinda Gates describes herself as data-driven. But it was stories of women walking for miles and waiting in long lines in the hot sun to get their children vaccinated who said they were also in line to receive their Depo-Provera shot, a long-lasting birth control method, that gave her pause.
The reports she was reading matched the women’s stories. “There were two hundred million women in the world who wanted contraceptives but didn’t have access.” The results were devastating for maternal and child health, the economy and general well-being of the population as a whole.
“Contraception was part of the early agenda of the foundation,” Gates writes, “but the investment was not proportional to the benefit. It took us years to learn that contraceptives are the greatest life-saving, poverty-ending, women-empowering innovation ever created. When we saw the full power of family planning, we knew contraceptives had to be a higher priority for us.”
But the people working with Gates on family planning said writing a bigger cheque wouldn’t be enough. And when they said what was needed most was a global advocate, all eyes turned to Melinda Gates. Yet, Gates saw herself as a shy person who tried to stay out of the public eye. She had even registered her children at school using her maiden name in an attempt to offer some protection from scrutiny. The prospect of becoming a public advocate “alarmed me,” she writes.
And there was something else too. Melinda Gates is a Catholic.
Am I going to step publicly into something as political as family planning, with my church and many conservatives so opposed to it?” she asked herself.
The Foundation’s CEO Patty Stonesifer warned Gates, “Melinda, if the foundation ever steps into this space in a big way, you’re going to be at the center of the controversy in a big way. You’re going to be at the center of the controversy because you’re Catholic. The questions will be coming at you.”
But she knew her family planning advisors were right. She decided to do it.
Her coming out on the family planning issue was a Gates Foundation co-sponsorship of a U.K. government summit on family planning held in London two weeks before all eyes would be on the city for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The family planning summit was just be the beginning. Gates would travel throughout the world, visiting people delivering programming on the ground and talking to women about their lives. The many stories she relates in the book are rich and compelling. The characters are likeable and inspiring. For someone who describes herself as data-driven, she is also a talented story teller.
And chapter by chapter, through her stories, she moves from villages in India to Uber boards to the #metoo movement talking about women’s experience and the importance of women’s voices.
In some ways, her book is a plea.
We have to keep working to reduce poverty and disease. We have to help outsiders resist the power of people who want to keep them out. But we have to do our inner work as well: We have to wake up to the ways we exclude. We have to open our arms and our hearts to the people we’ve pushed to the margins. It’s not enough to help outsiders fight their way in—the real triumph will come when we no longer push anyone out.”
For people who work with international NGOs, the setting of Gates’ stories might be familiar. But the fact that Melinda Gates decided to write a book—her first book—about women’s rights, women’s voices and women’s empowerment, when in so many places, those rights are being pushed back on, feels to me like Melinda Gates wants her views on the subject to be well documented and that there’s nothing accidental about her timing.
Start-up lessons for dealing with the word’s most intransigent problems
by Gail Picco (June 5, 2019)
Lean Impact, Ann Mei Chang, Wiley, October 30, 2018 304 pp., $34.09
Ann Mei Chang’s credentials for writing Lean Impact, coupled with a forward by best-selling author of The Lean Start-up Eric Ries makes this book an influential one right out of the gate. In a sector that sees itself as trying to do more with less and sometimes struggles with being “nimble,” non-profit leadership is open to new ideas that might assist in addressing, if not solving, some of the world’s more intransigent problems. Ann Mei Chang offers her considerable experience to the challenge.
After spending 20 years in Silicon Valley working with Google, Apple, Intuit and being involved with start-ups, Chang decided to devote the second half of her career “mak[ing] the world a better place.”
Chang writes that, while she understood that she wasn’t an expert on poverty, healthcare or human rights, she firmly believed “the same techniques for innovation [that] have fueled dramatic progress in Silicon Valley can be the basis for creating radically greater social good.”
She outlines how she thinks the lessons from a failed start-up are equally applicable to mission-driven work. It’s about scalability, she says.
“Deploying a one-off program for a thousand people is a waste if there could be a way to reach millions. The goal of Lean Impact is to find the most efficient path to deliver the greatest social benefit at the largest possible scale.”
And while the notion of scalability might suggest a one-size fits all approach, Chang also focuses on the gathering of individual data points. One charter school in the San Francisco area, for example, set out with the goal of having 100% of its students graduate from college. And despite initiating programming that made some gains, they were still short of their goal. The school’s founder and CEO, Diane Tavanner, wanted to do better, but the typical way of evaluating a student’s success (waiting until students graduated and following their progress) was “way too slow.”
Following the tenants of the lean start-up, Tavanner set on “embedding a culture and process for constant feedback and improvement.”
The process delivered 57 one-week, two-hours-a-day variations in programming to 400 students. “Iterated” by the school on the duration, frequency and structure of class elements, and balanced with a mix of teacher-led sessions, online content and one-to-one tutoring, they gathered data as the program was being delivered.
Chang reports that “by finding a way to speed up its feedback loop in a domain in which ultimate success takes years to measure and iteration is traditionally slow, [the school] was able to dramatically accelerate its own learn, progress, and impact.”
The project was seen to be the beginning of personalized learning and the book states that the model has been so successful, it has been adopted in over 300 schools across the U.S.
Chang acknowledges there has been a decline in social mobility, that racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment are flourishing, and that economic transformation has left many behind. But she says we also “need to recognize our current interventions are insufficient.”
“The path forward must include better solutions that will deliver the greater bang for buck and reach many people over time.”
Her formula for translating the power of a lean impact mindset, which she dives into in great detail in the book, is threefold:
- Think big.
- Start small.
- Relentlessly seek impact.
In a non-profit sector that often focuses on the scarcity of resources, we should focus on the transformation of mindset, she says. Think about the size of the problem, as opposed to the amount of resources, Chang writes.
In terms of finding the money for social innovation, Chang acknowledges it is much more difficult to devote resources to innovation in the non-profit sector than in the private sector . She suggests there are seven ways in which funding structures can get in the way of innovation: having a Grand Master Plan that doesn’t adapt, lack of consideration for overhead, creation of silos by funding restrictions, a project approach vs a solution approach, the pioneer gap or early stage capital investment, the long, slow process of granting, and reporting and compliance.
Still, she says is still possible to do so, and it starts with developing open and honest relationships with funders.
Chang believes in the strength of a market approach.
In his forward to the book, Eric Ries defines Lean Impactas a book that “discusses the ways organizations can serve their two very different, but equally important customers—funders and users—a crucial skill set for success in the world of social good.” And the book successfully fills that promise.
For people looking at scalable models, applying the lessons of Silicon Valley outside of established public institutions and through a market framework, there is a lot consider in this book, a book that offers a prescription for potential innovation in the charity sector and within charities themselves.
Ann Mei Chang has recently taken up the post of Chief Innovation Officer for