The Impact Alpha | August 30, 2018

Big winners want to be changemakers? Hold them to it.

David Bank
ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

Share the wealth. Save the world.

The first is a bus-poster tagline for the 20-pack of Chicken McNuggets. The second is the message on movie-theater recycling boxes for your 3-D glasses. 

See what I did there? Ironic references to draw readers into this column. World-weariness for those degraded expectations. Shared cultural, if not moral, superiority. I enlisted you in a club: We can’t be fooled.

That’s the same play Anand Giridharadas appears to be running with his new book, “Winners Take All.” Taking down bogus messages and bold-faced billionaires is a good talk-show ticket.

“I mostly wrote the book to discredit them as world-changers,” Giridharadas told New York magazine (in specific reference to Mark Zuckerberg). The former New York Times columnist also wants to make the phrase “thought leader” a joke, “so that no one ever uses it again in an un-ironic way.”

I should admit that I haven’t yet read Giridharadas book (though that rarely stops me). I did the usual columnist-on-deadline thing and read his Times’ op-ed, a bunch of interviews, economist Joseph Stiglitz’ review that led the Times’ book section last Sunday and a bunch of other Twitter links. My first take is that he’s off the mark. 

Elites are elitist. In pawing through the spate of commentary I found myself saying, tell me something I don’t know. I suspect the dog-bites-man narrative that appears to be Giridharadas’ premise misses the real story. 

Giridharadas says he was sitting in a room named for the Koch brothers during his Aspen Institute fellowship, funded by the likes of Monsanto, Pepsi and Goldman Sachs, when he started the realize “that giving had become the wingman of taking. Generosity had become the wingman of injustice. ‘Changing the world’ had become the wingman of rigging the system.”

Giridharadas’ critique of what he calls “MarketWorld” takes in Goldman and McKinsey, the Clinton Global Initiative and George Soros’ foundations, Facebook and Silicon Valley in general – “anyone who is endeavoring to make the world a better place while protecting their opportunity to make a killing. Anyone who is seeking to change the world while also keeping it the same enough to keep themselves on top.”

News flash: Many corporations and billionaires are greedy and hypocritical.

It’s easy to skewer plutocrats who have received a charitable tax deduction for their philanthropic donations. He takes impact investors to task for not supporting the closing of the carried-interest tax loophole (which benefits private-equity fund managers, impact or not).

“Today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned in history,” Giridharadas writes, as well as “among the more predatory in history.”

Complicit: Where are impact investors as the tax bill redistributes wealth upward?

All good. The tougher question is how to leverage the social-good impulse and rhetoric – munificent or not – into real, systemic change. Perhaps recognizing the intractability and complexity of the fix we are in, Giridharadas sidesteps prescriptions,” Stiglitz writes.

Giridharadas’ critique comes just as the impact investing community itself is sounding the alarm about “impact-washing,” the growing practice among fund and wealth managers to slap an impact label on what are often rather lukewarm investment offerings. That concern is a major driver of ImpactAlpha’s series, launched this week with the Global Impact Investing Network, exploring What’s Next for impact investing.

What’s Next: Building a trusted identity for the impact investing movement

The practice “is stifling or diverting money from investments seeking a positive social or environmental impact,” says the GIIN’s Amit Bouri. In his commentary, Tim Macready, chief investment officer of the Australian superannuation fund said impact-washing poses “an existential threat: That impact investing’s language and goals “will be co-opted by those who don’t share our desire to invest in ways that are transformative.”

Common goals, not just common language, will drive institutional impact

Giridaharadas would also seek to define who’s in and who’s out. “By promulgating pseudo-change all these years, they staved off actual reform,” Giridharadas says of the poseurs. 

I think that puts the cart before the horse: It’s not TED talks or even Davos that has hampered transformational change, it’s the obsolete practices and willful ignorance of “legacy” finance. The “co-opt” framing is too static.

At issue is what Triodos’ Marilou van Golstein Brouwers, in the What’s Next series, called a theory of change. Don’t underestimate the personal agency of “agents of impact” who are working inside and outside of “elite” institutions to drive the new calculus of risks and opportunities that already is changing finance. 

As Arjuna Capital’s Farnum Brown put it, “I’ve long maintained that the project is and always has been one of infecting the host.”

The Impact Alpha: Agents of impact start to infect their hosts

I look forward to actually reading Giridharadas book, in which he plumbs the nuances and credits at least some elite actors as motivated by genuine system-change. The Ford Foundation under Darren Walker, he says, “is looking at the structural causes of things as opposed to treating symptoms.” A Ford fellowship, anyone? Seriously, Walker’s account of prying $1 billion from Ford’s endowment for mission-related investing is a prime exhibit of such personal agency. 

Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker takes on opponents of impact investing — including his own trustees

The point is not to skewer, but to split the elite. Global corporations. Too-big-to-fail banks. Huge pension and sovereign wealth funds. Billionaires and their families. Cities and whole countries. All are being called to account for their impact, negative or positive, I wrote in this space a few months ago.

“The act of driving capital toward explicit, accountable social and environmental value-creation starts companies and investors down a trail of logic that may well scramble alliances and split constituencies.”

Government action can certainly accelerate action (witness the Opportunity Zone frenzy sparked by capital-gains tax advantages). Impact investing tries to enlist markets as well. Redirecting market mechanisms to value and account for social and environmental impact sets up the next waves of change. Moving capital creates constituencies and support and all the apparatus for actual public policy and actual projects and progress.

Rather than worrying about too many people claiming to want to change the world, let’s hold them to their word.

This is the latest column in David Bank’s weekly series, The Impact Alpha. Catch up on all of David’s columns here.