The past year ushered in a new level of poignant and popular critique of the business of philanthropy, catalyzing widespread discussion and debate about philanthropy’s role in perpetuating and exacerbating economic inequality and racial injustice. Books like Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas and Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth became essential reading and struck a chord throughout the social sector and mainstream society.
As Giridharadas, Villanueva, and others make compellingly clear, not only is philanthropy the product of wealth inequality, philanthropy—deliberate or not—thrives in an environment that perpetuates privilege, white supremacy, and entrenched power. Perhaps most significantly, institutional philanthropy often reinforces economic exploitation and extraction. Philanthropy, like extreme poverty, is simply a byproduct of social, gender, racial, and economic injustice.
Curiously, philanthropy is used to address problems created by an economic system that engenders radical wealth inequality, thus making philanthropy necessary in the first place. That we live in what has effectively become a winner-take-all economy is not seriously in doubt. According to Credit Suisse, the wealthiest one percent now own 47.2 percent of the world’s wealth. In the United States, the numbers are only slightly better, with the wealthiest one percent of US households owning 39.6 percent of the country’s wealth. In 2017, 82 percent of all new wealth created worldwide went to the richest one percent. In 2017, the world’s richest 500 billionaires’ net worth grew 24 percent to $5.38 trillion while the poorest 50 percent saw no increase in wealth at all. The world’s billionaires saw their collective wealth increase by $762 billion, enough money to put an end to global extreme poverty seven times over.
This massive concentration of wealth among the wealthiest comes during an era when worker rights are often perfunctory at best, an oxymoron at worst—a world where, despite talk of shared value, Wall Street maintains an unrelenting focus on shareholder returns. Further, according to The Road to Zero Wealth, a 2017 study by Prosperity Nowand the Institute for Policy Studies, if the US racial wealth gap remains unaddressed, Black median household wealth will fall to zero by 2053, while white median household wealth is projected to rise to $137,000 by that same year.
The demography of the United States is changing: People of color will be the majority within a generation and already are in public schools nationwide. Meanwhile, wealth—and the power, protection, and access that come with it—continues to be extracted from and denied to communities of color and other marginalized communities.
Our global economic system clearly benefits the 2,208 billionaires and 36 million millionaires in the world, but literally billions are left behind. When it is the case that, even in the wealthy US, so many are headed toward zero or even negative wealth, what is philanthropy to do?
The field of philanthropy must wrestle with its complacency in the systemic accumulation and concentration of wealth. Philanthropy needs a liberation; a movement to redress these systemic failures and restore equity. In order to liberate philanthropy, a number of justice-oriented organizations have developed concrete and actionable steps for philanthropy to take.