Book Forum on Reich's Just Giving

Keeping Philanthropy Fully Accountable in a Democracy: Morey on JUST GIVING & WINNERS TAKE ALL

Editors’ Note: Continuing HistPhil‘s forum on Rob Reich‘s Just Giving (2018), HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey relates Just Giving to another much-discussed book on philanthropy published earlier this year: Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All (2018).

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018), journalist Anand Giridharadas introduces readers to a network of elites taking on “social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure” and allies in government, consultancy firms, private foundations, and the academe who have absorbed these elites’ approach to social change.

Giridharadas notes that today’s economic elites believe in the “beneficial side effects of self-interest.” And yet, distinguishing themselves from their predecessors in U.S. history, today’s “winners of commerce” are no longer told “to ignore the social good and keep their contribution to it indirect and unintentional. They [are] to focus on social improvement directly and intentionally.”

Right here, in the second of seven chapters in Winners Take All, it becomes clear that this book would have been enriched by greater historical engagement. For example, a broader perspective on the history of philanthropy in the U.S. shows how today’s elites are not singular in thinking that their vast wealth places them in a privileged position to solve public problems. Rather, gilded age steel titan Andrew Carnegie made a similar argument in “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889)—a text that Giridharadas mentions in the book but does not link as being an early point in a rather long history of U.S. industry tycoons thinking that they know better than the public on how to address and solve public problems.

Considering that philanthropists long have expressed this perspective, it should be little surprise that writers preceding Giridharadas have scrutinized these elites’ motivations as public servants. It is little surprise too that they have concluded, much as Giridharadas, that these elites promote a model of social change that “not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are.” For example, leading historians of philanthropy Barry Karl and Stanley N. Katz wrote in “Foundations and Ruling Class Elites” (1987) that a critical perspective on philanthropy among scholars had grown in the latter part of the 20th century. Applying the work of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, such scholars of philanthropy have argued that elites use forms of soft social control—such as philanthropic giving—in order to maintain legal, political, social, and economic dominance. To use Gramsci’s vocabulary, such critics explain that elite philanthropists play a “hegemonic” role in society. During the past decades, there have been numerous examples of such histories of philanthropy including: Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s The Politics of Knowledge (1989); Noliwe Rooks’s White Money/Black Power (2006); Karen Ferguson’s Top Down (2013); James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South (1988); and Inderjeet Parmar’s Foundations of the American Century (2012).

If Giridharadas had placed his contemporary criticisms of “change-making elites” within the broader historical context of philanthropists in the U.S., he thus would have appreciated how today’s change-making elites are not so distinct in trying to maintain the status quo, even in their efforts to work on behalf of the public good. He would have come to appreciate too how his own analysis of today’s philanthropists has precedent.

All that said, and to the author’s point, there is a growing consensus among philanthropy scholars that there is something particularly distinctive about many of today’s philanthropists. As Linsey McGoey, David Callahan, and Sarah Rekhow respectively note in No Such Thing as a Free Gift (2015), The Givers (2017), and Follow the Money (2013) and Giridharadas echoes in Winners Take All, a number of leading philanthropists today are using market-based language (a trend dating back at least since the 1970s in private foundations, according to Lily Geismer). Further unlike their counterparts in private foundations and their advisers during the first half of the twentieth century, today’s philanthropists and their fellow travelers—as Giridharadas underscores—express a preference for private sector solutions to public problems and for thought leaders over scholars to inform their giving (with thought leaders providing less-threatening individualized solutions to structural problems).

Winners Take All, perhaps better than any book that I have read besides Megan Tompkin-Stange’s Policy Patrons (2016), provides an inside-peek into the ways that these contemporary modes of speaking among philanthropists and philanthropic staff and board members inform their expectations for societal change. Presenting a survey of this network of change-making elites, Giridharadas takes readers across the United States to meet various memorable characters from Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and former US President Bill Clinton to Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy and philanthropist Laurie Tisch.

Giridharadas concludes the book by quoting University of Chicago political scientist and co-editor of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (2017), Chiara Cordelli. As he relates, Cordelli urges the importance of living in a society where citizens and their public institutions in the public realm, rather than elites and their private institutions in the private realm, shape public life and solutions to public problems. Giridharadas writes:

“This is what it means to be free and equal and independent individuals and, for better or for worse, share common institutions,” [Cordelli] said. Our political institutions—our laws, our courts, our elected officials, our agencies, our rights, our police, our constitutions, our regulations, our taxes, our shared infrastructure: the million little pieces that uphold our civilization and that we own together—only these, Cordelli said, “can act and speak on behalf of everyone.”

Leaning on Cordelli, Giridharadas stresses the importance for all of us—the reading public in the U.S. and elsewhere—of demanding that our publicly-elected representatives and institutions, rather than our private sector plutocrats and organizations, reemerge as the principal agents shaping the direction and potential of social change in our societies.

This message is inspiring and rather easy to accept for many readers of HistPhil sympathetic to the importance of a robust democracy where public institutions both reflect the will of the people and—rather than elite philanthropies—serve as central agents of public policy.

Stanford political scientist Rob Reich, author of the other much-awaited text on philanthropy of 2018—Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better—is predictably sympathetic to Giridharadas’ democratic ideal and how elite philanthropists can undermine it. After all, Reich and Cordelli are intellectual collaborators. Not only did Cordelli and Reich co-edit Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (with Lucy Bernholz) but they together wrote the final chapter of Just Giving, “Philanthropy in Time: Future Generations and Intergenerational Justice.”

Much like Giridharadas’ recounting of Cordelli’s perspective, Reich in Just Giving suggests that philanthropy needs to complement rather than undermine a vision of democratic life as a society built by the collective will of the people, of a populace in dialogue and earnest debate in public. By contrast to Cordelli, however, Reich is less certain that public institutions are singularly best situated to reflect the will of the people, and thus too, to shape public life.

A slightly slimmer and more somber volume compared to Winners Take All, Reich’s Just Giving calls readers to think deeply about the value and appropriate place of philanthropy in democratic life. In this spirit, Reich dedicates the book’s five chapters to testing a political theory of philanthropy. On the importance of this emphasis, Reich writes early on in the book: “A political theory of philanthropy focuses our attention on the variety of legal rules that structure and encourage philanthropic activity and prompts us to question whether they are compatible with justice and supportive of democracy.” In his efforts to sketch a political theory of philanthropy, Reich distinguishes between individual philanthropy and private philanthropic foundations.

Arguably more invested than Cordelli or Giridharadas in reconciling an idealized vision of participatory democracy with private giving both in its mass and elite forms, Reich provides readers with rationales for continued state subsidization of private giving and for the continued existence of philanthropy’s more elitist form: private foundations. Reich ultimately concludes that in a democracy the former type of giving is justified so long as it meets the goal of “pluralism and the decentralization of power in the definition and production of public goods,” while the latter more elitist form has a positive “discovery” role to play in democratic life. This discovery function for private foundations is, as Reich writes, “an experimentalist approach to that, if successful, can be presented to a democratic public for approval and incorporation into state policy or, alternatively, adopted into a market economy by corporate actors.”

Since Reich does not seem to view public institutions—as Giridharadas and Cordelli arguably do—as singularly the best institutions to embody the people’s will, he finds particular value in finding means for justifying philanthropy’s continued existence in democratic life and again both in its mass and more elitist forms. Because while Giridharadas and Cordelli’s democratic utopia includes citizens deliberating in a public square and strengthening their public institutions to reflect the will of the majority, Reich seems most concerned with maintaining the first part of this utopia: citizens deliberating in a public square. For Reich, it seems, so long as philanthropy plays a complementary role toward this ideal (as he argues it does through the pluralism and discovery rationales), he is content that philanthropy can play a “first-best” role in democratic life.

Reading these two books side-by-side, I was inspired by Rob Reich’s and Anand Giridharadas’ sense of democratic duty to question the value of philanthropy. And yet too, I was disheartened by their ultimate analyses of what we owe each other in democratic life. This is to say that, if we took these two books’ ultimate conclusions on philanthropy’s relationship to democratic life as our guideposts for discussions of philanthropy’s full obligations in a democratic society, we would miss some important layers. Because as Reich and Giridharadas acknowledge in the body of their texts, citizens including themselves perceive philanthropy to have other commitments beyond complementing or stepping aside in favor of the people’s will to shape public life. As they note within the chapters of their books—if not in their overarching conclusions about philanthropy and democratic life—philanthropy also might have a substantive responsibility to address social justice and to bridge economic inequality.

In Just Giving, for example, Reich justifies the second chapter’s focus on equality by noting: “The decision to focus attention on equality is nonaccidental: for many people and in many historical traditions, philanthropy has something to do with providing for the poor and disadvantaged… Moreover, independent of history and etymology, if we ask ourselves what kind of philanthropy a liberal democratic society might wish to produce, a focus on equality could lead us to believe that public policies should structure philanthropy so that it assists the poor and disadvantaged.” In this chapter on equality, Reich places greatest attention on philanthropy’s role in assisting the poor, or rather, the economically disadvantaged.

Reflecting the chapter’s title “Philanthropy and Its Uneasy Relation to Equality,” Reich concludes by stressing how philanthropic practice in the U.S. falls short of its expectations to address economic inequality. He writes: “Let it be clear: we might still find reasons to justify the institutional arrangements that define the nonprofit sector and create tax benefits for both nonprofit organizations and their donors. But the justification would have to rest on grounds other than something concerning an egalitarian distributive norm.” This is because, as he notes throughout the chapter, public policies regulating philanthropic giving in the U.S. privilege the interests of the wealthy over the less wealthy, and the recipients of charitable giving do not tend to be the poor. So in the end, philanthropic giving—as practiced in the U.S. at least—does not play an egalitarian, redistributive role in society. With this in mind, Reich abandons the equality rationale for philanthropy and spends the next chapters of Just Giving describing the pluralism and discovery rationales respectively for individual giving and private foundations in liberal democratic states.

In Winners Take All, by comparison, Giridharadas goes beyond economic inequality to assume philanthropy’s more general responsibility as champion for social justice. Seemingly disappointed by philanthropy’s failure to meet these expectations, Giridharadas laments the ways that change-making elites refrain from “changing any of the larger dynamics of power and sexism and prejudice.” Rather, invested in maintaining their own privileges, these elites make “small-scale changes” without trying to threaten their own socio-economic status. This is an approach to social change that Giridharadas dubs “win-win.” To this point, for example, the author describes one of the first lessons that former Silicon Valley Community Foundation leader Emmett Carson learned soon after moving to the Bay Area: He “was told to drop his usage of the off-putting win-lose jargon of social justice. Given that social justice was his life’s work, this might have posed a problem. But Carson understood one of the implicit rules governing the entrepreneurial class’s contribution to change: It is more forthcoming when you frame problems in ways that make winners feel good.” Later in the book, Giridharadas notes that current Ford Foundation President Darren Walker toes a comparable line by existing in this network of elites while broadcasting his organization’s focus on social justice.

Quite tellingly, both Giridharadas and Reich spend time in their books underscoring these layered expectations for philanthropy in democratic life. As they note, citizens such as themselves not only expect private givers to complement, rather than undermine, the will of the majority in shaping public life, but also for these private givers to be agents of social justice and greater economic parity.

It is revealing, though, that both Reich and Giridharadas leave behind the latter two responsibilities for philanthropy in favor of emphasizing the former when they conclude their analyses on the relationship between philanthropy and democratic life. At some level, this could suggest that the two authors share comparable views on democracy’s core attributes as a society where citizens deliberate and, in the process, determine their society’s priorities, and on how philanthropy must answer first and foremost to this ideal. From this perspective, both authors could have reasoned that philanthropy’s obligations to social justice and economic equity are secondary, and thus, worthy of mention in their texts but unworthy of incorporating into their conclusions on the proper role of philanthropy in democratic life.

On the other hand, their writing decisions could reflect the fact that both Reich and Giridharadas are familiar with the networks of change-making elites that the latter author describes in Winners Take All. And in this way, their inclinations to leave behind economic equity and social justice in their central arguments about philanthropy and democratic life also might reflect the authors’ proximity and sensitivity to the change-making elites’ disinterest in addressing such structural inequalities in society.

And yet, as Giridharadas and Reich acknowledge, some number of democratic citizens such as themselves expect philanthropy to take on these roles. Building upon these conversations within the pages of Winners Take All and Just Giving, I thus urge the two authors and their readers to interrogate further the books’ conclusions on the promises of democratic life and what philanthropists owe a democracy. Because assuming that private givers indeed have layered obligations to support political equality, social justice, and economic equity in a democratic society, we cannot simply mention and then leave philanthropy unaccountable to the latter two responsibilities. We need to keep these layered obligations in mind as we continue to reflect, as Reich encourages us to do in Just Giving, “on the variety of legal rules that structure and encourage philanthropic activity and… to question whether they are compatible with justice and supportive of democracy.”

-Maribel Morey

Maribel Morey is the co-editor of HistPhil and an Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University. Here is a link to Maribel’s prior publications.

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