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Book review: ‘Letting Go’ by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey

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Published: 18 January 2022

The impact investing sector needs to listen more to who it is trying to help and move away from ‘billionaire philanthropy’, argue the authors of Letting Go: How philanthropists and impact investors can do the most good by giving up control’.

In brief

  • Two progressive authors explore how the worlds of philanthropy and impact investing have been transformed by a small coterie of billionaires
  • They argue this has led to highly centralised decision-making in the hands of a small number of opinionated individuals, who are ‘pale and stale’
  • The solution is to listen more to the grass roots and to ‘decolonise capital’
‘Letting Go’ by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey

The authors tell us upfront: “The idea for this book came out of a conversation we had at a conference for impact investors. The people in the room were mostly white, mostly male, and almost entirely from the United States and wealthy European cities. Investors were talking mostly to each other about solutions to problems that many of them had never experienced.”

No surprise that both authors are from the progressive wing of US politics. Meg Massey worked in the Obama White House and Ben Wrobel on Stacey Abrams’ campaign in Georgia.

They also have worked in impact investing: Wrobel at Village Capital, and Massey at the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment. 

According to the authors this book is “the biography of an idea that is both simple and powerful. What if we shifted decision making power away from expert grant makers and investors? What if we gave that power to people with lived experience of the problems at hand?”

An interesting idea, especially when it comes coupled with the suggestion investors take up surfing. “Because surfing is about letting go” and “what we’re suggesting is that the best way to step up for social change is to step back, and the best way to make an impact is to simply let go.” See you on the beach.

Billionaire philanthropy has its downside

The problem, as they see it, emanates from ‘billionaire philanthropy’. In particular, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, which has netted more than 200 donors and some $500 billion of capital. 

Often this money comes from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and it has “changed the mechanics of giving. The Giving Pledge has ushered in a new era of business leaders who take lessons from their former lives”.

The sheer scale of their giving can also crowd out other organisations. When Bezos pledged $10 billion to fight climate change it was like a “nine-hundred-pound gorilla emerging on the scene, imposing his will on the climate change movement”.

Decisions, they argue, are highly concentrated. “Bill Gates set a precedent when he decided that resources would be allocated at the discretion of just four board members.”

Grant makers, they write, are also more likely to restrict who they will even consider for an open grant, with invitation-only policies for grants becoming increasingly more frequent.

Like philanthropy, like impact investing

The authors argue “a parallel conversation” is happening in impact investing.

“Power typically sits with a small and exclusive set of decision makers at every step of the funding process. A growing number of investment funds have started to rethink not just what investors should put their money behind but how they make those decisions.”

In both sectors, they identify a failure to listen to the grass roots. They describe the ‘Rusty Radiator’ award given out by a group of Norwegian students “for the most egregious examples of out of touch giving”, highlighting “the absurdity of someone from a far-away country purporting to know what people in need truly need”.

The authors tell the story of Juicero, “a fun punch line of how out of touch Silicon Valley can be”. Basically, instead of ‘hacking’ healthy eating as promised, the startup took $100m in venture capital to create “Wi-Fi-enabled juicing machines” that turned out a “product that cost $400 and was essentially useless”.

They believe there is a real danger that “impact investing, for all its good intentions will allow the world’s biggest investors, unconstrained by accountability to anyone, to use the brand of impact to increase their stranglehold on the direction of the global economy”.

Decolonising capital

All of this is particularly worrying as so much of both philanthropy and impact investing is white Europeans and Americans giving money to black Africans.

They fear ‘digital recolonisation’ and point to Abdul-Karim Mohammed’s analysis of the Global Impact Investing Network’s database indicating that out of 286 deals “more than half went to companies that had only white founders”.

The answer is to ‘decolonise capital’ and the authors call for more ‘grassroots capitalism’. In doing so, they are appealing to the all-powerful identity politics in the United States that may not find as receptive an audience in Europe.

Certainly, their enthusiasm for the Ujima Fund in Boston, a delightful “little alien in the belly of capitalism”, comes across as naïve. The sums involved are tiny and achieve little.

But their overall message is a powerful one, and the solutions they propose interesting. “Democratise decision making; add community representatives to your investment committee; involve outside stakeholders; put a premium on lived experience.” All sound advice.

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