Is the Age of Doing Well by Doing Good Already Over?

In another year full of unlikely events, one of the things I least expected from 2018 was a book to send shockwaves through the social impact sector and challenge my fundamental belief in the importance of social enterprise. In the weeks following my daughter’s birth, I somehow made time to read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All, and I’d describe it as a glorious punch in the gut - not only for me, but clearly for a lot of us in this field.

One of the questions we’re left to grapple with now: is it time to abandon the concept of doing well by doing good?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, last fall, Giridharadas rocked the hell out of our collective boat. He called out wealthy elites across this country, not only for the damage they’ve inflicted creating their fortunes in the private sector, but also how they’re undermining both government and civil society by injecting a “win-win” mentality into everything. From his perspective, the questionable nature of how some of the wealthiest Americans rose to status is being covered up through sweeping acts of philanthropy, and what is truly sinister is that they are using those acts to redefine social justice as yet another profitable endeavor for themselves.

“Doing well by doing good,” therefore, is a sham that was designed to allow the winners to colonize the public sector. And we, the social impact practitioners, too dependent on their funding, too starstruck by their success and thought leadership, not only haven’t resisted but in fact are drunk off the Kool-Aid.

This resonated deeply with me, as it has for many others. Sometimes I feel like everything I hold dear is getting hijacked and that money is flowing in insidious ways all around us. In some ways, it’s even worse than Giridharadas knows (more on that in a future post).

But in others, I think he let cynicism get the better of him by spending too much time around these “winners,” and now the baby’s out there somewhere with the bath water.

I do share his discontent for how social enterprise, impact investing, CSR, etc. are showing up in the world right now, but it’s a mistake to think this is all being driven by the winners or that these approaches are inherently rigged. Take this quote from p. 38:

In an ideal version of [social enterprise, impact investing, etc.], the winner could enjoy an enticing combination of making money, doing good, feeling virtuous, working on hard and stimulating problems, feeling her impact, reducing suffering, spreading justice, exoticizing a resume, traveling the world, and gaining a catchy cocktail-party spiel.

Does that sound like what motivated you to get into this work? I don’t think I’ve ever consciously been pursuing the end of poverty for the sake of a catchy cocktail-party spiel. And is it wrong for social impact professionals to make money? Will we ever dispel this myth that we (and especially nonprofit folks) can’t earn a competitive salary without jeopardizing our mission?

Interestingly, this book had a major influence on me when I was deciding whether or not to start Orion Advising. As I struggled to articulate what would be unique about working with me, Giridharadas planted this idea in my head of becoming a kind of anti-McKinsey consultant for social entrepreneurs - using a humble approach that focuses on co-learning and co-creation, charging below “market rate” to be accessible to as many folks as possible, and positioning my lifelong dedication to this work as the most important thing I have to offer.

But for me, it’s never been about doing well by doing good. Social enterprise is about focusing your energy on building something regenerative; forgoing the system of dependencies that have defined charity and aid to create opportunities for others to do well for themselves; and role modeling a new way to do both business and nonprofit. And he seems to conflate doing well with getting rich, which is not representative of the social entrepreneurs I’ve seen (even the ones with an unhealthy fixation on forever scaling up).

That idea still holds true to me, while acknowledging that it is not a cure-all and that especially impact investing is still far too heavily influenced by the owning class to finance our collective liberation. But Giridharadas focused so much on the winners that I was left feeling a little bit like my own story didn’t matter, or the story of the amazing entrepreneurs I’ve seen come through Youth Impact Hub Oakland and the Global Social Benefit Institute, to name a few. Their stories do matter, sir! And they hold the promise for an economy rooted in justice for us all.

That’s why I’m so eager to focus everything on supporting startup social entrepreneurs now. Both those fighting through systems of oppression to uplift us with a totally new business model, and those making the transition from the private sector who want to learn how to be a partner and not a colonizer in this work. I look forward to meeting all of you (seriously, I love meeting people) and proving both that this is not an elitist hoax and that we have the guts to push back against powerful forces who would make it so.