Must wealthy people like me lose for society to win?
Even if you haven’t read his recent book, many of you are likely familiar with Anand Giridharadas. The author of “Winners Take All” is everywhere these days — Twitter, BBC, “Morning Joe” — taking on the elite and indicting them for using their status to cement their gains while doing small amounts of “good” designed to burnish their reputations rather than make real change.
Giridharadas and I had a discussion on stage at the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference in Minneapolis recently, and I think a lot of people assumed that since I’m a wealthy white man and a philanthropist, I would disagree with his critique. But my biggest take-away from his book is this: Giridharadas is a provocateur, and we needed to be provoked.
What stuck with me was our discussion of zero-sum thinking. It’s the idea that if you win, I lose and vice versa. I describe in my last Forbes.com column why this thinking is damaging for society. A twist on this is the critique of the type of philanthropy that Giridharadas describes in his book as the “win-win.” It’s when a philanthropist “wins” by getting the public relations boost for “doing good” while not really changing the system that sustains his privilege; and the recipient of the largesse “wins” by getting a new wing for their hospital, or new computers for a group of students, while not moving the needle on changing the deep inequities in the health or education systems.
That kind of giving is fine. It doesn’t do harm. But there are a lot of other philanthropists who believe these systems must be transformed to advance equity and justice. This is the surest path toward long-term shared prosperity for our society. And for true shared prosperity, we must cast aside zero-sum thinking and concentrate on growing the size of the pie rather than assuming there is a fixed amount where some will win and others will lose. Putting things in a zero-sum frame drives people toward “othering” — a concept popularized by john a. powell (who spells his name in lowercase), where in moments of distress, we narrowly define who is in our tribe and demonize those who are not.
But then Giridharadas threw out an example of something he thinks is indisputably zero-sum: power. He cited the example of members of Congress — 535 people with immense power who have a limited amount of time they can devote to any one issue. Who do they listen to? Whose priorities get attention? When members of Congress make time for the wealthy and powerful at the expense of someone with less power in our society, the zero-sum, cutthroat nature of power is in full effect.
As much as I resist zero-sum thinking, he’s right — at least in the short term. And he was touching on a key factor in what it takes to advance equity in our society and a conversation very much alive in philanthropy today. It will take people like me ceding and sharing power — it will require me to “lose” for someone else to win. But in the big picture, it’s a bargain a lot more people should take.
I often say privilege is invisible to those who possess it. And power is wrapped up in privilege. When you have it — especially when you’ve had it for a long time — you don’t notice the myriad ways your ideas are the first to be heard; that your calls get returned before others; the benefit of the doubt you are given at every turn. You must pay attention to see it.
So, once you see it, what do you do? Many of the leaders in philanthropy are white men who have succeeded in the business world. Our approach to problem solving is tied up in our privilege and the lens we bring from our life experience. We may be well-meaning, but systems work for people like me — so the likelihood that I would have the solution to fixing, say, an education system that has consistently failed young people of color is low. Really low. Yet we start out in philanthropy thinking we (and some consultants who look like us) can come up with the solutions, implement them and bring them to scale. After all, that’s what we did in business. But the first lesson of ceding power in philanthropy is this — you alone cannot fix it. In fact, you should probably just cut the check and get out of the way.
The people you need to listen to — to both correctly identify the problem you are trying to solve, and to come up with ways to address it — are those with lived experience. In homelessness, that means talking to people who are homeless and who have been homeless. No one else knows the barriers to stability better than they do. It means working alongside the communities you seek to impact and letting them shape and guide the direction of your work.
This is just one example. There is a lot more I need to learn about how to cede power and then actually do it. Giridharadas’ example in our discussion made me think about the next time I meet with a member of Congress. I may be advocating for something that I think is good for society, but should I be the one making the case? I want to use this column to elevate issues of equity and inclusion, but why am I the one doing that? My rationale is that I’m trying to use my privilege to advocate for a more equitable society, but these are the questions I am wrestling with and trying to figure out how to answer in a better way. And probably getting wrong sometimes.
But one thing I am indisputably clear on is this: I am more than willing to “lose,” by advocating for progressive tax reform that will raise my taxes, engaging the voices of those with lived experience with the societal problems we are hoping to solve and giving up my seat at the decision-making table to someone who has been denied that opportunity, if it will lead to the just and equitable world I want to see. That would be a true, non-cynical win-win I think even Giridharadas could get behind.