Advice for progressive billionaires who want to make the world better

[Image description: A stack of Euro coins, at the top of the stack sits a tiny figurine of a person sitting and reading a book. Wow, that is a tiny figurine. Where would one even get this? Image by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash]

Over the weekend I listened to this episode of The Ethical Rainmaker, where my friend (and fellow co-chair of Community-Centric Fundraising) Michelle Muri talks with journalist Teddy Schleifer about billionaires and what they’re doing with all that money. Apparently, during the pandemic, the number of billionaires increased by 30%, and 86% of them got even more wealthy than before the pandemic. According to Teddy, Silicon Valley billionaires will in the next couple of decades overshadow large established foundations in terms of assets and influence.  

However, there is significant angst about what to do philanthropically with this newfound wealth. There are so many factors to consider: which issues to choose, how to deploy it effectively to bring about the most societal good, how to avoid current ineffective practices. This causes many billionaires to just set money aside in Donor-Advised Funds and other vehicles while they try to figure things out. Some of them literally send tweets asking for suggestions on what to do, what issues they should work on. And because so many of these billionaires are men, they often ask their wives or partner to handle the philanthropy.

Great episode, as usual, from Ethical Rainmaker. Honestly, though, it was a bit frustrating getting a peek into this world. The glaring wealth inequity. The money that’s just sitting there, growing, while there are so many horrible things happening in the world. I can imagine all these super-wealthy individuals having financial advisors giving them all sorts of recommendations, with the goals of protecting and increasing their wealth.

But who is advising them on philanthropy? Since I will unlikely be in the same circles as billionaires, I am glad organizations like Resource Generation exist that could guide rich young people on how to use their wealth (and the privilege and power that come with it) for good.

However, on the off-chance you are a millionaire or billionaire and you’ve stumbled on this blog as you figure out what to do with all that money to make the world better, here’s some advice I have, based on my imagining what I would do if I were a billionaire. You may not like some of it, but I hope you’ll consider it (And if you’re not a billionaire, go ahead and keep reading, in case you run into a billionaire later and they ask you for advice):

1.Stop believing money equals expertise: For so long, our society has perpetuated this charade that if you somehow made lots of money, it must mean you’re generally brilliant and can now use your amazing mind combined with your resources to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. No, that’s not how it works. Stop believing it. Just because you have a ton of money doesn’t mean you know anything about nonprofits or the problems we’re tackling. I’m sure you’re great at what you do, but that doesn’t mean you’re also great at other stuff that you have little to no experience in.

2.Let go of your attachment to issues: Nonprofit leaders and fundraisers like me have presented the nonprofit sector as an equity buffet that you can pick and choose from, based on what you care most about. We’re reaching a point now where what you personally care about really doesn’t matter, and in fact, what resonates most with you are often things that will least likely bring about change. Because, again, this is not your area of expertise. So, let go of your ego and stop trying to find the perfect cause, the perfect issue to support, and start trusting that the people who are most affected by systemic injustice have the solutions, and fund them.

3.Fund organizations and movements led by marginalized communities: Once you’ve learned to let go of the notion that you should have a significant say in the work of making the world better, move money to organizations and movements led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, AAPI, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and other people from racialized and marginalized communities, and trust them to do whatever they think is best. These are the most effective and yet the least resourced forces in our sector. That’s because we have a system that rewards people who can play the game best—writing the best grant proposals, fostering the strongest relationships, etc.—and that puts smaller community-led organizations at a disadvantage. Many of them will not be on your radar even because you’ve been trained to only see and respect large, well-branded, white-led orgs.

4.Focus on voting access and political representation: Right now, hundreds of bills are being passed to suppress Black and brown votes. And except for a few hardworking and under-resourced organizations and funders, philanthropy’s response has been pathetic. Meanwhile, political power remains concentrated among rich white men. Voter suppression and white dudes controlling everything affect every single issue you care about. Use your resources to ensure people from marginalized communities are able to vote. Support the election of progressive women of color. These two critical levers of power are some of the most important things you can do right now.

5.Learn from conservative philanthropists: Here are 10 things progressives funders must learn from conservatives ones or we are all screwed. Conservative funders work with nonprofits like partners. They fund quickly, significantly, with few restrictions, for ten or more years at a time to provide stability, and engage in politics and systems change. I’m afraid so many new progressive billionaire philanthropists will inherit the same horrible habits that have been entrenched in progressive philanthropy: issue-specific, suspicion-based, hunger-games-perpetuating bullshit that has held up our work for years and years. Be more like conservative philanthropists, but with progressive values.

6.Be aware of your own toxic intellectualizing: I know many of you love data and metrics and stuff. But it’s gone too far. Waiting for the perfect data in order to act has led to a lot of inaction. Worse, it’s led to toxic intellectualizing, where we keep doing research and have discussions and read research papers or whatever, often repeating information communities have known and been saying for years, and thinking that in itself is a form of action. Which makes you think you’re doing something good, when really you’re just wasting time while inequity proliferates.

7.Fund existing effective foundations and efforts: Stop trying to be a unique snowflake of philanthropy by founding your own foundation or launching your own efforts. There are funders and organizations that are already doing awesome work allocating funding. Find and just give them money to continue doing it. The Libra Foundation, Social Justice Fund, Solidaire Network, for example. Don’t reinvent the wheel when others have already spent years perfecting the cart.

8.Pay your fair share of taxes and support tax reform: A lot of the problems you’re trying to pick and choose from to solve are caused by you and your companies not paying your fair share of taxes, which then means government doesn’t have enough resources to do its work effectively, so then we nonprofits have to step in to fill in the gaps. Pay your taxes and support progressive tax laws and let government do its work addressing problems in society. Stop believing the narrative that government sucks. It definitely has its flaws, but it’s still better than the current system of letting wealthy people avoid taxes and then get to pick and choose among their favorite causes while nonprofits conscience-launder for them.

I hope this helps, in case you are a billionaire reading this. There is too much at stake for you to have all that money sitting there while you pace around trying to figure stuff out that communities have figured out a long time ago. As you get into philanthropy, I don’t want you to get into the same terrible philanthropic practices that have plagued our sector: Meritocracy, the infantilizing and under-funding of communities most affected by injustice, toxic intellectualizing, saviorism, and the buffet-like nature of you getting to cherry-pick issues based on your own personal whims and interests.

Let go of the illusion of your own intelligence. Become untethered from the need to be philanthropically special. Trust and support instead the organizations and movements led by the people most harmed by injustice. Use your power and resources to restore voting and make our government more reflective of its people. Find funders already doing good work effectively and support them to allocate funds instead of doing your own thing. And pay your taxes.

If you want to talk further, I’m here for coffee or lunch. You’re paying.

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