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Five Classics of Philanthrocapitalism

If you want to curl up with a classic this Holiday Season, here are five of our favourite suggestions from the Philanthrocapitalism bookshelves. (Steve Goldberg asked us to include his fine, thought-provoking book, “Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets: Why Philanthropy Doesn’t Advance Social Progress,” but because we do not wish to encourage such shameless lobbying, we reluctantly had to exclude it from consideration.)

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits,” by C.K. Prahalad. The death of C.K. Prahalad earlier this year could not have come at a worse time, as criticism has increased sharply of efforts to harness the profit motive to eradicate poverty. What would he have thought of the mess in Indian microfinance, or the behaviour of the Unitus board, we wonder? So what better time to read his great call to capitalistic action to help poor people – ideally, the fifth anniversary edition that includes a thoughtful essay by Prahalad on lessons learnt so far. As we noted in our obituary, putting these ideas into practice made him more optimistic – a quality those committed to using profits to help the poor are likely to need plenty of in the years ahead. When he last spoke to Matthew, he said that “I can now answer ‘yes’ to five questions I posed when I first launched the idea of Bottom of the Pyramid. Is there a real market? Is it scalable? Is there profit? Is there innovation? Is there a global opportunity?” Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Showing Up For Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime,” by Bill Gates Senior. This fascinating and highly entertaining memoir is far more than the best source of information on the upbringing of the world’s leading philanthrocapitalist. Bill Gates Senior, who refers throughout to his wealthy son by his family nickname, Trey, offers some tremendous insights into the art of giving, but perhaps even better ones into how to create the sort of family in which all the children grow into adults who are committed to giving back, regardless of whether or not they also become billionaires. If you haven’t read this book yet, you really should.

The Foundation: A Great American Secret. How Private Wealth is Changing the World,” by Joel Fleishman. The definitive account of the history of institutionalised philanthropy and the positive role it has played in America and the world – full of challenges to do better as well as celebrations of what has worked. As Matthew wrote in his review of the book in The Economist, as Mr Fleishman laments, “foundations ‘operate within an insulated culture that tolerates an inappropriate level of secrecy and even arrogance in their treatment of grant-seekers, grant-receivers, the wider civic sector, and the public officials charged with oversight. This needs to change.’ Something, then, for those trendy new philanthropists to ponder.”

On Assistance to the Poor,” by Juan Luis Vives. It seems obvious today that philanthropy’s goal is to solve problems but this was a radical idea when Juan Luis Vives wrote his classic study ‘On Assistance to the Poor’ in the early 16th century. In ‘Philanthrocapitalism’ we trace the historic roots of the ideas of today’s entrepreneurial problem-solvers to the philanthrocapitalists of earlier eras. Vives, as we discuss further in one of the historical bonus chapters, was a follower of the humanist philosopher Erasmus, who designed radical new ways to lift the poor of renaissance Europe out of poverty, rather than just treating them as recipients of alms. He was also an early advocate of equality in education for girls – a goal we have sadly still not achieved.

The Warden,” by Anthony Trollope. Charles Dickens usually gets the credit for writing the definitive novels about Victorian philanthropy but we want to give a shout out to Anthony Trollope for ‘The Warden’ – an insightful tale of the complexities of reforming charities. The Warden of the story, Septimus Harding, runs a medieval foundation called Hiram’s Hospital. He is a kindly man and he and the residents of the hospital live a comfortable life. That is until a young reformer, John Bold, starts to shake things up. It is easy to talk about philanthropy being disruptive – The Warden is a reminder that change is often as painful as it is necessary.

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