The Radical Who Wasn’t: a review of Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World

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Winners Take All, the third book from former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, has created both great interest and, it seems, some confusion. Reviewers who complain that the book “bashes the overclass”, and implore us to “remember that there are winners who act ethically, too” may have missed the point, or a some good deal of it. No doubt there are winners who act ethically, but, while Winners Take All does indeed scrutinise, and yes criticise, present-day Western elite philanthropic practise (the subtitle is ‘the elite charade of changing the world’, after all), it has a broader, deeper purpose than simple class warfare. The books animating spirit is, it seems to me, to provide a critical exposition of modern elite power in America: its structures, its manifestations, its control of narrative form and scope, where it resides and how it entrenches and embeds itself. As such, it is an almost Gramscian work, such is the focus on the hegemonic power of present-day elite networks. Philanthropy is but the expression of these structures, whose roots reach deep into the economy, and, indeed, society. This should not be a controversial point: as Giriharadas says in the (unusually interesting) acknowledgements to Winners Take All, his target in the book is not philanthropy per se but, more specifically, its role as an “apparatus of justification” (a phrase he borrows from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century) for elite power structures. And, in one of the books most illuminating passages, his analysis of Andrew Carnegie’s essay ‘Wealth‘, published in 1889, underscores again that the target for Winners Take All is not ultimately philanthropy, but the damage done by capitalist paternalism and excess, and the risks of putting profit before people. His comments in a recent podcast reveal his thinking:

“We talk about doing good, but we never talk about doing less harm. We talk about giving back, but we never talk about how much these people take, and the structures of taking. We talk about changing the world, but we never talk about all the ways in which they are shoring up the status quo that benefits them and predictably, reliably shuts other people out”

The book began life as a speech given by Giridharadas in 2015 at the Aspen Institute, where he was on the Henry Crown Fellowship programme, and whose reading list may be unique in including works from Gandhi and the former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. In the book, Giridharadas hangs his themes on several hooks, building the narrative through the voices of philanthropists, academics, senior Executives of major Foundations and economic development programmes, and others. One key idea is ‘MarketWorld’, the pro-free market conviction, common among elites, that no matter what the question, market-based solutions are the answer. Another is ‘Win-Win-ism’, the convention that social change must have an upside for all involved. A third is globalism, the strand of modern globalisation which has seen (and which often urges) businesses to be “agnostic about place”, where the simple, brutal imperative is to “[d]o each of your activities where it can best be done”. However, the book’s intellectual centre of gravity is the so-called ‘Aspen Consensus’, a set of beliefs neatly summarised by Giridharadas in the credo that “capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned”. The Consensus enables – even encourages – capitalists to use any means they see fit to earn their fortunes. It also illuminates Giridharadas’ conviction that the winners in modern America have have pulled up the ladder of opportunity: as he said in a recent radio interview “it becomes a club…elites have rigged society to predictably, reliably, foreseeably shut a lot of people out of the opportunity to make a better life for themselves”.

If this seems somewhat radical, it should be no surprise: Giridharadas begins a chapter of Winners Take All with a quote (“the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house”) from the book of the same name by radical activist poet Audre Lourde. However, he omits the lines that follow this quote in the book: “[the masters tools] may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change”. And while a spirit of radicalism has a noticeable presence in Winners Take All, it is tempered by the fact that pointing out the paradoxes and hypocrisies of a period of fairly extreme capitalism is not in itself radical. This is itself a paradoxical aspect of some reaction to the book. Perhaps driven by talk of “plutocrats”, an “elite charade” and the books sustained examination of the beliefs of the HNWI class, Winners Take All has been portrayed almost as a work of anarchist philosophy. It is not, and, while Winners Take All is timely, highly competent and well-executed, it says a great deal of the tenor of current public debate that scrutiny of the underlying beliefs of the ‘haves and the have-yachts’ is taken to be such a radical act. I was reminded when reading Winners Take All of Professor Noam Chomsky’s observation that, despite publishing a book named ‘Our Revolution’ and being labelled a radical Socialist, many of Senator Bernie Sanders’ policies would have been perfectly familiar to (Republican) Dwight D. Eisenhower and his team and, indeed, would have seemed fairly moderate to many 1950’s American voters, familiar as they were with the New Deal and the idea of a significant role for Government intervention in public life. Today, after what Giridharadas has called a “30- or 40- year war on the very idea of Government”, many people now perceive the role of the public sector differently. But to my mind, to call, as Winners Take All does, for a re-energised, revitalised civic realm and reimagined, bolder role for Government with increased participation for younger people from a range of backgrounds is not radical. It is just common sense.

Given Giridharadas’ background as a journalist, it is to be expected that Winners Take All reads like a collection of high-quality long-form articles. With impressive skill, Giridharadas immerses himself in this world while at the same remaining distant from it. This is perhaps clearest in his account of a visit to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), where, with acute descriptions of the seminars, dainty finger food and earnest concern, Giridharadas captures a strong sense of a world which is entirely (and entirely willfully) separate from the one it proclaims to want to help, one where solutions to real-world problems are discussed by the great and the good, thousands of miles from the people whose lives the solutions will alter. Giridharadas skewers the CGI set with the odd caustic aside (“the party was full of the kind of people who say they ‘live between’ two places”). However, he is not unrelentingly critical, and shows an appreciation of the (apparently genuine) cognitive dissonance of those whose consciences nag them about the inequities and injustices of the status quo, but whose wealth and power depend on that same status quo remaining in place. “The people who ge to take advantage of the system, why would they want to change it?”, says one. “They’ll maybe give more money away, but they don’t want to radically change it”. This paradox is perhaps sharpest in the case of the Sackler family, whose pharma firm Purdue invented and (very aggressively) marketed prescription drugs, including painkiller OxyContin, which became a widely abused street-drug, and has been at the centre of America’s so-called opioid crisis. Despite the Sacklers $14bn fortune being built on sales of a highly-addictive opioid, and despite their having lobbied fiercely against regulation of its use, the family are best known today for their philanthropy. As Giridharadas notes: “[g]enerosity is not be a substitute for justice, but here, as so often in MarketWorld, it was allowed to stand in”.

As we pass the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis, it is hard not to see Winners Take All in the light of work produced to describe that catastrophe. ‘Social silences’, described as an important causal factor in the financial crisis by Gillian Tett in her 2009 book Fools Gold, were important in reinforcing power structures before the crisis by keeping attention away from important issues by hiding them in under cover of silence. They are also central to the ‘Aspen Consensus’; Giridharadas has said he was aware of the attention-diversion of important issues he and his Aspen Fellowship group “were not talking about when we came together to talk about changing the world”. In its tone and narrative structure, Winners Take All bears some resemblance to Michael Lewis’s 2010 classic The Big Short. Both The Big Short and Winners Take All use a range of protagonists to tell their stories, and both engage the reader with direct, witty phrasing turning what could in the wrong hands be dry topics into important topics. Perhaps most directly however, Winners Take All can be seen as a bookend to Philanthrocapitalism by Michael Green and Matthew Bishop which, despite being released amid a financial crisis caused in no small part by financial institutions led by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals, was subtitled ‘How the Rich Can Save the World’. Winners Take All is an epic refutation of Philanthrocapitalism’s core tenet, which Giridharadas has tartly stated as being that “the people who broke things are the best qualified to fix them. The arsonists are the best firefighters”. While this thesis may have found favour in the Roaring 2000’s, times have changed. The Great Recession, Occupy, awareness of the ‘1% and 99%’ and  Trump have shifted the tenor of the public mood in English-speaking countries, and the argument that elites must be left to run the show has, in important respects, run out of road. Part of the appeal of Winners Take All is that it rejects the notion that major social problems can be painlessly spreadsheeted away using McKinsey-like methods, or that corporations’ only responsibility is to make as much money as possible. For Giridharadas, the goal should be to give up the excesses of no-holds-barred free-market capitalism, not just give some back once the fortune is banked. The contrast with Philanthropcapitalism, and its starry-eyed homage to the possibility of elite philanthropy, could not be clearer.

For all its strengths, Winners Take All also has limits. Giridharadas’ decision to omit a ‘solutions chapter’ – or anything like it – may have merit, but does forego the opportunity to tie together the various narrative threads. It also precludes a discussion of Giridharadas’ (very sensible) suggestion, presented in interviews around the release of the book, to encourage talented students to take up roles in Government by forgiving the student debts of graduates who choose to go into public service, a shame as this is a credible policy proposal which merits attention. The omission of a ‘solutions chapter’ is compounded by Winners’ Take All’s narrow field of vision. While in his promotional interviews for the book Giridharadas speaks of the need to recognise the many “varieties of capitalism” across the world (a clear, though apparently unreferenced, nod to the influential 2001 book of the same name by Peter Hall and David Soskice), Winners Take All fails to mention any of the enormous range of ‘varieties of philanthropy’ practised across the world. The reader is left unclear as to what the alternative might be to modern American philanthro-capitalism, when the fact is that systems of generating and dispensing social good are legion, whether the religious practices of the Muslim zakat, Judaism’s tzedakah or Christian alms, or simple volunteering, whose ubiquity has led the Bank of England’s Chief Economist to point out that, taken together, volunteers constitute the second-largest workforce in the entire world after Chinese adults.  While Winners Take All was clearly never intended to be a survey of mechanisms of (or even necessarily motivations for) donating money and time, it would have benefited from greater depth in displaying an awareness of other approaches to what we in the West call ‘philanthropy’.

Despite his not being mentioned in the book, the spirit of the work of historian Tony Judt flows through Winners Take All, in particular Judt’s final book, Ill Fares the Land. Judt, who died in 2010, was the very embodiment of the public intellectual, as opposed to the vacuous ‘thought leaders’ described so coruscatingly in Winners Take All, “who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults”. While Judt specialised in post-war European history, he was also a committed social democrat, and an eloquent, forceful critic of modern capitalism, saying that “[i]f modern democracies are to survive…they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage”. When Giriharadas says “what is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests”, he channels Judt’s spirit. And his statement in the denouement of Winners Take All that “[e]conomistic reasoning dominates our age” strikingly resembles the firt words of Judt’s 2007 assertion (in ‘The Wrecking Ball of Innovation‘) that “[w]e live in an economic age…the new master narrative – the way we think of our world – has abandoned the social for the economic”. Given that Judt was one of the brightest and most humane voices of his generation this is a very good sign.

Winners Take All is as readable as it is informed, and displays throughout a journalistic knack for so effectively capturing the perspective and of an insider-outsider, (his phrase, again from the acknowledgements). The use of first-hand interviews and reportage connects the reader directly with situations that would otherwise seem distant, and the use of a range of characters humanises the rarefied world of power-brokers and high-achievers, which many will never experience first-hand. While it maintains a somewhat narrow focus and avoids suggesting potential solutions, Giridharadas’s sharp eye for detail and strong, principled stance make Winners Take All a satisfying and informative read.  It is highly recommend.

Great Waves and L-Curves: Some Thoughts on the nfpSynergy Blogs

A few quick thoughts on the insightful recent pieces from Joe Saxton at nfpSynergy, which lay out some of the bigger threats and opportunities currently facing fundraising.

The challenges are spot on. Very hard to argue that squeezed incomes, growing public debt, lower Government funding, disintermediation and new technologies allowing more public fundraising are anything else but facts of life fundraisers must learn to live with. Perhaps most concerning is the fall in incomes which, combined with growing debt, will probably reduce confidence to give among a broad swathe of families, especially as these trends are so widely reported that, reporting which could curb confidence to spend. To my mind, these threats deserve far more attention and deliberative discussion.

Great to see Rowenna Fielding use her comment to pick up on the fact that smaller databases need not be a synonym for shrinking income. She is absolutely right to say that “[r]educing database sizes so that they reflect high-quality engagement with supporters rather than large volumes of obsolete data is a good thing”. We now have many years of evidence to suggest that response rates for many charity marketing appeals are well below 1% in many cases. My own view is that sending appeal after appeal to largely unresponsive audiences has been one of the main reasons for the doubling of complaints about charity fundraising in four short years from 2012-2016. This model seems especially futile given that a tiny minority of donor provide a significant fraction of the income for many of our organisations. Many not-for-profit’s income base would look like an L-curve (with the L turned anticlockwise to lie on its long edge), with a third or more of all income coming from just one or two tenths of a per cent of the donor base (this trend also holds in the US, as the work of Peter Wylie has shown). Important to note too that since the 1970’s and 1980’s, when charities began to adopt database-driven marketing activities, the level of donations from private sources to UK not-for-profits has not risen at all (as far as data is available) and, as I wrote recently, has probably fallen as a proportion of economic activity far more quickly than many people realise. It also seems possible that the use of database-driven fundraising has increased inequality within the sector, with a small number of the very largest organisations reaping most of the benefits of marketing-led approaches. This links to Joe’s very pertinent point on mass affluence. Approaches to this group in recent years have often taken the form of ‘mid-value’ fundraising, where a combination of greater ask amounts, bespoke communications and dedicated relationship managers are employed with higher value donors to drive giving. Speeding up growth in this area, and exploring other methods to capitalise on the mass affluent market, will be an important part of solving the puzzle of how to grow overall giving in the coming years.

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Just 0.1% of the supporter base often give 30%-60% of total donations, as Peter Wylie’s work has shown. See: https://cooldata.wordpress.com/?s=Lopsided

And while it is true that Legacies present a tremendous opportunity for fundraising, it is also the case that the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is the 9th biggest mortgage lender in the country, and that unsecured credit is exploding (again) in the UK, leading to concern from the Bank of England and others that consumer credit growth is a risk to the economy. The estimated £6.8trn (trillion) value of UK homes does have extraordinary potential for to grow fundraising, this does I think have to be tempered by the fact that much of this value is either likely to be tie up in parents’ commitments to support their children to get on the property ladder. Having said this, it’s hard to see why the ‘giving while living’ model popularised for the wealthy by Chuck Feeney should not be rolled out more widely than it currently is, provided ways can be found to unlock value currently tied up in illiquid assets like real estate.

Joe and I share the same major concern, namely, who is going to guide charities towards the major structural changes needed to move from here to there. The ‘great waves’ of funding which have sustained UK not-for-profits over most of the last century originated (as far as I can see) in large measure from outside the not-for-profit sector. World War 2 drove many innovations in fundraising which are still with us today (including payroll giving, door-to-door collections, sponsored activities and selling goods to raise funds for charity). The establishment of the National Lottery was a Government initiative, driven personally by Sir John Major, with the huge increase in spending on and contracts to the Third Sector initiated by New Labour beginning in 1997. The fact that, as Joe says, the Institute of Fundraising, NCVO and other major bodies are showing rather little interest in nudging the sector towards a sustainable growth path should be of concern to all of us. Existing funding models are not in good health, yet the bodies who could help drive moves to new methods are not doing so. Will they ever?

Hokusai

RBKC

The shock result of June’s UK general election was undoubtedly the victory in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (K&C) of the left-leaning Labour Party, when many had assumed K&C, (London’s wealthiest Borough), would, by nature of its affluence, forever remain a safe Conservative seat.

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On closer inspection the shock is not entirely merited, especially given K&C’s “startling” inequality. Simmering grievances in the Borough, at least partly the result of gaping wealth differentials, were exposed just days after the election by the visceral local reaction to a lethal fire at (Council-owned and run) Grenfell Tower in the north of the Borough, and the Council’s abject response to it. Indeed, the yawning gap between rich and poor in K&C is an open secret to locals; as victorious Labour candidate Emma Dent Coad (pictured above, who before winning was a K&C Councillor) said in a powerful acceptance speech, K&C has “areas of extreme poverty…[p]eople [in K&C] are getting poorer, their income is dropping, life expectancy is dropping and their health is getting worse. There is no trickle down in Golborne ward and there is no trickle down anywhere in Kensington”. Dent Coad’s more recent public statements claim Victorian-era diseases like TB and rickets are still present in K&C, and that, so compressed are the Borough’s geographic inequalities of affluence, simply crossing the road can see the average income of residents fall by ten times. While it is an outlier, K&C is not entirely unrepresentative of the modern trend of wide divergences between haves and have-nots.

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All of this matters for fundraising – a lot. In the UK and elsewhere, wealth is held in fewer and fewer hands, with distributions of wealth and income increasingly lopsided. Contemporary fundraising technologies, many with their genesis in postwar fundraising efforts, often rely on broad participation across society. A shrunken middle-class restricts this, with fewer citizens able to afford to support good causes, which in turn means fewer funds raised and less participation. And economic changes are colliding with a tougher regulatory regime in which marketing is increasingly challenging, and which may rule out go-to methods of acquisition-based business models. With such strong headwinds, declining participation in the sector might seem inevitable, and with it any hopes of maintaining donation levels, let alone increasing the amount donated.

The cloud may, however, have a silver lining, in this case the fact that our ability to tailor approaches to higher value audiences has never been greater. Databases like the Luxemburg Income Study and the World Top Income Database offer unprecedented scope to analyse the social dynamics of wealth in the UK and across the world to a remarkable degree of granularity. Much of this information was assembled by a cohort of academics, lead by the eminent Professor Sir Tony Atkinson (who sadly died earlier this year), and including Professors Thomas Piketty (of Capital in the 21st Century fame), Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman, (the latter’s recent work having shone much light on the widespread use of tax havens). We know more, in more detail, than we ever have about how to identify those with the means to support our great causes. And at a more practical level, moves towards data-driven methods have been taken, notably by research consultancy Factary, whose approach to database screening has, they say, been “revolutionised” by the use of data on “socio- and geo-demographic factors” to “prioritise the database” according to ability and likelihood to give. Rather than using a bank of more or less static data produced by desk research work to screen against, Factary now use overlaid data, to indicate those most likely to give. While I am not familiar with the precise data used, such methodologies are surely the future for fundraising research, especially considering that those able to donate major gifts (say of £10,000 or more) are likely to be located in fewer than 10,000 of the 1.8m postcodes in the UK. Data (academic or publicly available) is accessible like never before, making analysis of economic geography sensible and achievable, and could, if used properly, give a much-needed lease of life to British high-value fundraising. Such a pivot towards high-value is not without risks, perhaps the greatest being the chance of the interests of a minority being heard more loudly than those of the majority. However, while the Third Sector would surely lose credibility if it were seen to give undue attention to niche interests, no-one thinks UK not-for-profits face SuperPAC-type capture anytime soon. More likely is the familiar issue of certain causes being harder to raise for than others, which is as old as the sector itself, and probably insoluble. More regulation, or a hard interpretation of the DPA or GDPR precluding analysis like that described above, is another risk, but, by retaining manual elements in analytical processes and taking a truly donor-centred approach, one which should be able to be mitigated.

Navigating these risks would, however, have the benefit of diversifying the income base for a sector whose overall revenue remains stubbornly flat. And if you think that increasing the amount donated to not-for-profits in this way seems unrealistic, is it any more so than, say, Labour winning in Kensington & Chelsea?

Voice of the Beehive

Which charities make the biggest impact? Which will do the most good with the grants they receive? Which causes are the most in-need in a given area, and which projects have helped them the most? All questions that grant-makers ask when looking to disburse funds, and all questions for which supporting evidence is far more difficult to find than should be the case.

Perhaps not for much longer. Rachel Rank and her colleagues at 360 Giving are changing the way we access data so that data about charitable grants is simpler, more accurate, easier to access and faster to work with. 360 Giving (and sister organisation Beehive Giving) are bringing the concept of an ‘open data standard’ to the third sector – and not before time.

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Recent publications using the standard mean “[m]ore than £10bn worth of grants [have] been published to the 360Giving Standard with the addition of nine more grantmakers in the last two months”. And with recent editorial contributions from former-NCVO data guru David Kane, CAF’s Rhodri Davies and others, 360 Giving also features high-quality content. Meanwhile, the format itself helps grantmakers and those aiming to create beneficial social impact to make decisions based on evidence and, crucially in these austere times, clearly highlights need in local areas to better target scarce resources.

What’s not to like?

Falling Flat?

The dominant narrative around UK not-for-profit income in recent years has either been of reasonable stability in the face of economic shocks, or of fairly gentle and understandable decline as older technologies become less effective. The release of the latest CAF Giving Report prompted me to look again at this narrative.

Some basic economic analysis of the CAF figures seems to show a different story than the ‘flat income’ narrative . The UK Giving Report usually reports voluntary donations in cash terms, as in the graph below. However, despite there being comparator figures for economic growth, there is rather little comparative analysis of the figures. This matters because economies are dynamic things – the value of a currency changes from minute to minute, and the overall amount of economic activity fluctuates over time, too.

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It also matters as it means that the cash figures in the report do not show donations as a proportion of overall economic activity. Despite aggregate GDP growth of 15.7% from 2005-2015, (calculated simply by summing the figures in orange in the graph). Donations are shown as broadly flat, when as a proportion of the total economy they are declining by at least as much as the economy is growing, some 1.5% a year. In 2005, British annual GDP was £1.676trn, with donations at £10.3bn, or 0.0061% of GDP. In 2015, British GDP had grown to £1.889trn, with donations having fallen to £9.6bn, 0.0051% of GDP, an alarming 17.3% drop in donations as a share of the economy in just a decade. Another omitted trend is inflation; voluntary giving in 2005 was £10.3bn – £14.1bn in 2015 money; had charitable giving kept pace with inflation over this time it would in real terms be approximately £4bn higher than it currently is. When I asked them about inflation, CAF said “we have reported on this in previous years and may do so again but looking at it without adjustment is also useful because it shows that the actual amounts people donate are fairly constant, regardless of inflation levels”. Fair enough, though one would think that this type of economic analysis would be included in most years especially as, taken together, inflation and growth mean the same amount of money buys progessively less impact over time. This is especially noteworthy as the rate at which it is happening seems not to be widely realised, running (as it does) counter to the popular (and more reassuring) narrative of stability or gentle, heroic decline.

And consider all this in light of the sectors overall dynamics. I was struck to learn recently that one major national health charity’s income nearly doubled in the 10 years before 2016, at a compounded rate of 7% a year. In light of the above, the point is that this growth has come within a static sector, meaning that while the size of the cake remains the same, the slices for some are growing quickly, at the expense of others. Each year of no growth also reinforces the harmful idea that the current rate of voluntary donations is somehow a natural maximum and that therefore we are in a kind of secular stagnation where the best to be hoped for are year after year of flat numbers. My response to this is the graph below, which I’ve used before and will probably use again, showing steep recent growth in British sales of ethical goods and services. Growth for socially-oriented organisations is not only possible, it is happening:

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That’s the past and present – what of the future? The declining share of the total economy devoted to voluntary donations suggests that, if the present trend continues, UK not-for-profit’s will by 2025 be able to fund around 34% less good work each year than if donations had kept pace with inflation and GDP growth over the 20 previous years. If unchecked, this would lead to a potential ‘crisis of relevance’ for a sector. I also worry about the financial health of mid-sized not-for-profits, (those with income in the £5m-£20m bracket) who, faced with stricter regulation and larger competitors with more financial firepower, could be forced to shut their doors or seek to merge to survive.

Ideas matter. The story we tell of not-for-profits’ place in our economy and society relies to a great extent on how we measure organisational impact, which in turn relies to a significant extent on income – relative and absolute. The above should sharpen focus on the declining effectiveness of some fundraising approaches, a decline which could well be far sharper than sometimes thought.

Rich List Redux

Another year, another Sunday Times Rich List and it is, today’s release tells us, “boom time for billionaires”.  Much is made of the rising level of philanthropic giving among the über-wealthy, but the bigger story seems to be the sheer overall rise in wealth, which is striking even for those of us who have kept a close eye on ‘The List’ in recent years.  Key stats are:

  • An overall year-on-year increase in estimated wealth of 14%
  • The top 500 individuals and families in 2017’s list are worth more than the value of the entire 1,000-strong 2016 list
  • A billionaire boom: 15 years ago there were just 21 billionaires listed; this year the figure is 134
  • The entry level of £110m is double that of the 2009 list
  • The 2017 total list value is more than six times that of the 1997 list, whose value was an estimated £99bn

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For charities, a 20% increase in the value of UHNWI philanthropy over the last year does not quite obscure the gulf between donations and the wealth of the haves and the have yachts.  While 260 philanthropists in the list are quoted as giving an estimated total of £3.196bn, up 20% from 2016, the potential for contributions from this group to completely transform the face of British philanthropy is beyond doubt – just 2% of the value of the Rich List would double private donations in this country, which currently stand at c£11bn-£13bn per year.  However, UHNWI donations continue to lag well behind even this number, and have not shown any sign of catching up with donations from the public more widely.  Particularly striking is the absence of any of the very wealthiest families in the Giving List index of the most generous HNWI’s.  Indeed, none of the 41 wealthiest ‘Listers’ – with estimated wealth in excess of £274bn – appear in the Giving List, and, with only a couple of exceptions, it is only once we reach the middle ranks of the list that significant donations kick in.  No doubt there are many anonymous donors at the top end of the list, and data used to compile wealth, power and philanthropy lists will of course always be partial at best.  However even taking this into account, it does seem that the gap between what is and what could be for British HNWI has never been greater.  Another trend is the rise in ‘giving while living’.  There are likely to be many reasons for this, however the rise of self-made money could well be feeding a more hands-on approach to philanthropy.  It is also likely that the pleasure of giving to good causes, as evidenced by Giving Pledge and other such initiatives, has had an effect.

And away from philanthropy, an ever-greater concentration of wealth gives more and more political clout to UHNWIs, whose political donations give them real – some would say really worrying – traction in the political process.  And at the confluence of politics, philanthropy and finance, I was especially struck by Crispin Odey’s donation of £873,328 to the ‘Leave’ campaign, as Odey bet (via his fund Odey Asset Management) that the UK economy would slow down in the event of Brexit.  The bet backfired however, as the UK economy powered on through, causing his marquee fund to lose almost half its value in a matter of months.

Nestled among new List compiler Robert Watt’s engaging prose are fascinating nuggets of trivia, some of which give make light of the unattainable wealth of list members. For instance Jack Ma (estimated net worth: £26.7bn) apparently thinks that the optimum earning level for happiness is £2,500-£5,000 per month – “the more money you have”, he is quoted as saying, “the more things you have to do”.  Another, perhaps even more germane, nugget is elsewhere.  In a fascinating interview with Management Today, Rich List founder Robert Beresford says that “around 90% of the [lists] wealth is not liquid, it is tied up in the businesses that the current rich or previous generations have built”.  This shows two things – first, that the fraction of British HNWI wealth needed to significantly raise overall private philanthropy is far higher than first impressions of headline figures suggest.  Second, that, as a result of this, fundraisers will have to work very hard to build strong enough relationships to achieve such increased gift levels.  A tough ask – but by no means impossible,

It seems that, as Beth Breeze’s recent Good Asking report suggested, fundraising research is needed – now, more than ever.

Run DMCMC

Run DMCMC

Turning the geek factor up to 11 for a moment, there are some interesting possibilities for mathematical techniques used in technologies like predictive text to be used to assess fundraising interventions.  Ever since an influential 1948 paper by Claude Shannon – “the Father of the Information Age” – so-called ‘Markov Chain’ models (a variant of which is  ‘Markov Chain Monte Carlo’, or MCMC) have been “widely used in speech recognition, handwriting recognition, information retrieval, data compression, and spam filtering”, as well as ‘Natural Language Processing’/word prediction, by assigning probabilities to ‘state transitions’, ie the probability of one letter or word following another.  Using such chains to predict which fundraising interventions are most likely to lead to a gift would be a huge boon for the industry, leading (in theory at least) to far more efficient donor journeys and more granular understandings of business process value.  So, who wants to Run DMCMC?

Ratio’s(ination)

Imagine an ant crawling along a beach, left and right, forward and back, up and down, as it navigates home. It’s chosen path looks something like this:

Ant walk pic

The route is complex, but the complexity is a product of the environment, not the ant, whose decision-making power is minimal.  The example is abstract but relevant for people, too: “human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”

The question of how to navigate complex environments using limited decisionmaking capacity and incomplete information is at least as relevant for organisations as it is for animals.  As a fascinating recent post [login required] to the Prospect-DMM email forum suggests, the answer may lie partly in the use of ratios, which offer an elegant, contextualised ways to cut through bewildering amounts of information.  Simple, powerful metrics to use in fundraising could include:

  • Last five years giving/lifetime total
  • Responses/contacts
  • Number of appeal/number of gifts
  • Cost of appeals/lifetime donations

One obstacle is not being able to integrate or even extract information from our database systems to begin with.  Recent news that insurance giant Aviva has made great strides in integrating database systems to the great advantage of their business raised a thought which is highly relevant for many charities: are we prisoners or masters of our IT/database systems?  And, when techniques like database screening may be restricted or even off-limits in future, can we afford not to try to mine other data for insights?

Weapons of Math Destruction

If, as the ICO believes, the British public would experience “substantial distress” in learning their data had been processed in a wealth screening, the public will surely be distraught should they ever read Cathy O’Neils 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.  The many ways in which mathematical models and algorithms – the so-called ‘WMDs’ – are used to make crucial decisions relating to the public realm and, increasingly, private lives are as worrying and widespread as they are opaque and unaccountable.  Across vital issues like criminal justice (where court decisions increasingly use automated quantitative modelling and scoring), access to credit, finance and education (where credit scoring and rating of teachers increasingly rely on WMDs), jobs and employment (where a missed payment could mean being overlooked for a job interview) and even the feelings and emotions we experience (thanks again, Facebook), WMD’s are in wide and growing use.  This largely unseen trend is worrying as WMD’s inevitably contain errors and anomalies which, if not caught, can have significant effects for those affected by their scores or results.  Even worse, WMDs can have pernicious effects when they run perfectly – many contain implicit value judgements which end up disadvantaging poorer groups, or, in the case of aggressive advertising, are designed to target these very people.  Yet all too often WMDs’ methods and results go unchallenged.

O’Neils Mathbabe blog is an engaging mix of political commentary, engaging geekery and knitted hats – well worth a read.  And both are valuable and timely in helping us to understand – and hopefully better manage – our algorithmic overlords.

Where is the Money (Going to Be)?

In No Country for Old Men, menacing assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) shuns Woody Harrelson’s frightened offer of help to find a satchel loaded with millions of dollars.  “I can find it from the riverbank”, a terrified Harrelson pleads at gunpoint, “I know where it is”.  “I know something better”, counters the icy Chigurh, “I know where it’s going to be”.

Chigurh Hotel Scene pic

As fundraising researchers, we spend a lot of time focusing on where the money is.  But do we spend enough thinking about where it is going to be?  The scene is a reminder that to prospect by relying on companies or sectors enjoying current success (as a way to assess employees’ affluence) is to miss a trick.  Do we prospect often enough by trying to predict which sectors will become successful in the future?  It may sound like a fool’s errand, but understanding which sectors and products are on a strong growth path and likely to experience an uptick in growth – wearable tech, virtual reality, voice recognition technologies and peer-to-peer finance come to mind – would be a boon for prospect research.  Intelligence on mergers & acquisitions, IPOs and other comparable ‘liquidity events’ is equally valuable (lookin’ at you, Aramco).  Such horizon-scanning need not be resource-intensive and is par for the course for many investors and businesses – for very good reason.

Calling Bullshit

How to call bullshit in the age of Big Data?  There is now a whole course designed to do just that, and it is the best thing ever (no b*llshit).

callingbullshit