Hidden influencers

March 2019

Morag Burnett reviews Rob Reich’s critique of contemporary philanthropy and encourages givers to self-reflect


Rob Reich is sceptical about the transformational potential of foundations.  In the recently published Just Giving:  Why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better, he challenges donors about the unaccountable, often perpetual, power wielded by philanthropy.  

There is important analysis in this book for anyone interested in what donor money is doing in modern societies - whether that's supporting a major literary prize (see Crankstart's recently-announced Booker sponsorship) or driving cutting-edge policy innovations (such as Wellcome's work on outsmarting epidemics).  

His analysis of donor money starts with the conversion of private assets in to public influence.  He throws lack of accountability, lack of competitive marketplace and very limited transparency in to the cocktail.  The subsequent danger for even the best-intentioned philanthropist amongst us? That "our private discretion lets us sprinkle our will on everyone else".  And his conclusion? That philanthropy deserves our scrutiny rather than our gratitude.  

Reich comes at this as a political philosopher, rather than an activist guide, which can make it hard to draw practical lessons from the book.  However, it's clear that any foundation could benefit from taking a hard look at its transparency and accountability.  And he concludes with a plea for foundations to fund experimentation - where independence and long-time-horizons favour innovation and discovery.