A Few Things to Know About My New Book on Philanthropy, The Givers

Last week, my new book finally hit the bookstores—or at least whatever bookstores are still left these days. It’s called The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, and it looks at the new mega-givers who’ve been emerging lately and the influence they’re having in society.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably already have a stack of books piled up on your bedstand, along with plenty of guilt for not having read them. Who needs another book and yet more guilt?

That’s a reasonable enough question. But let’s table it for a moment, and talk about The Givers instead. Here are a few things I want you to know about the book.

It Looks at the Big Picture

If you work in philanthropy or nonprofits, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day matters—like who’s funding what issues and with what strategies. At Inside Philanthropy, we love getting into the weeds; sometimes, it seems like we live in the weeds, and happily so. In The Givers, though, I wanted to step back and ask where philanthropy writ large is going—particularly as waves of new wealthy donors pour into the sector. I see this as the biggest story in philanthropy right now—and maybe ever. These donors are both more numerous and more wealthy than most people realize, and the impact of their growing giving will be profound. But beyond a few familiar figures like Bill Gates, George Soros and the Koch brothers, not much is known about the givers, many of whom operate in the shadows. Based on numerous interviews, my book tries to explain who these people are, what motivates them to give, and how they approach philanthropy.

That Picture is Rather Alarming

Nearly all the philanthropists I talked to for my book have the best of intentions. And it’s hard not to admire many of them for the boldness and creativity with which they’re attacking major challenges like climate change or criminal justice reform. The problem, though, is that these private "super-citizens" are wielding growing power over public life—and at a moment when many ordinary Americans are feeling marginalized and believe the wealthy already have too much influence in our society. Further, I detail how philanthropy’s power will keep rising in coming decades at the same time that government is declining, as long-term fiscal pressures translate into cuts for all kinds of programs. I suggest that this is leading to a basic shift in who has power in American society—with government moving into the back seat of public life and the givers sliding into the driver’s seat. I don’t think most Americans are aware of this trend or what it means for our democracy.

But There’s a Lot of Nuance Here, Too

While The Givers has a strong point of view, it’s not mainly a book of argument and analysis. Instead, much of the book focuses on explaining how today’s mega-givers think and operate, telling lots of stories along the way. I was fortunate to get interviews with a number of top philanthropists, as well as people who help them with their giving, and I do my best to get inside their heads. What emerges, I think, is a quite nuanced look at elite philanthropists who defy easy stereotypes. I describe a heterogeneous mix of donors who’ve come to giving from different backgrounds and with a range of motives. Yes, these people are super-empowered compared to ordinary citizens, but many don’t come across as “masters of the universe” types. The smartest among the givers tend to be the most humbled by the challenge of deploying their wealth in a way that can make any dent at all in the big problems they care about.

The Book Is a Good Read

A book on philanthropy sounds like it could be a snooze, but this one isn’t. Back when I first started Inside Philanthropy, I described one of our goals as trying to make philanthropy “as interesting as it is.” After all, this is a subject with so many great elements: piles of money, grand ambitions, complex problems, bold (or scary) donors, and the fate of America and the world hanging in the balance. We do our best at IP to bring all this to life, and I’ve done the same in The Givers. One reason the book is rich with stories and lots of background on the philanthropists is because the more I’ve dug into the giving of living donors, the more I’ve come to see how deeply personal it tends to be. For example, how people made their money often has a big impact on how they they give it away, and the dynamics of couples are important, too. Many of the new donors draw heavily on their business experience as they get into large-scale giving, and also forge important partnerships with their spouses. This is interesting stuff, believe me. Or believe the New York Times, which called the book “highly readable.”

You Can Skip Around

One of the reasons we feel guilty about books is that we have this old-fashioned idea that we need to read them from beginning to end. Then, if we get bogged down somewhere, we feel bad. Well, you have my permission to skip around in The Givers. Maybe you’ll be most interested in the inside look at donors like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, John and Laura Arnold, or Jim and Marilyn Simons. Or maybe you’ll want to jump to my chapter describing how heirs to some of America’s greatest fortunes approach philanthropy. Those readers with a wonkier bent might gravitate to my chapter on the growing torrent of money coming into think tanks. I think it’s all pretty interesting, but it’s fine to skip to the parts that are most appealing to you.

The Givers Is Useful, Too

One last point: Whether you raise money for a living or give it away, this book is likely to be useful in your work. Because the new mega-givers have such a fast-growing footprint in the social sector, it’s important to know who they are and how they operate for anyone in this sector. In addition, I believe some of the practices of these donors—like the widespread belief in “big bets," or reliance on funding intermediaries—are already influencing philanthropy writ large. That impact is only likely to grow over time. While professionally run legacy foundations were the dominant players in philanthropy in the second half of the 20th century, living donors will dominate philanthropy in the first half of the 21st century, a trend that’s fast gaining steam. My book offers handy one-stop shopping to understand this shift.

***

Okay, that’s the sales pitch for The Givers. I’ll be on a book tour for a few more weeks, and if you’re interested in coming to an event, or listening to past interviews and events, check out this page with all the information, along with links to buy the book.

IP will be publishing at a reduced schedule while I’m promoting The Givers. Then we’ll be back to our regular programming.