Books of the Year 2015

This has been a bumper year for books related to philanthrocapitalism, including some terrific tomes on philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, as well as others focused on topics that should be of interest to anyone trying to innovate a better world.

Here, in no particular order, is a selection of the best of 2015:

Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works. Arguably the toughest of the many challenges facing social entrepreneurs is how to scale up their ideas so they have a meaningful impact on the state of the world. It is a challenge very few manage to meet. In this important book, Sally Osberg and Roger Martin examine what it takes to achieve significant scale, drawing on some telling examples of success (and failure). The two authors bring a wealth of experience and insight to this crucial topic, Martin being one of the world’s leading management theorists and advisor to firms such as Procter & Gamble, Osberg as the longtime president of the Skoll Foundation, a leading backer of the global social entrepreneurship movement. (Osberg also serves with Matthew and Michael on the board of the Social Progress Imperative.)

What gets philanthrocapitalists out of bed in the morning is the subject of a couple of fine books. Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World by Paul Shoemaker, an early employee of Microsoft and founder of Social Venture Partners International, draws on his many years as a venture philanthropist. He examines what motivates changemakers to refuse to settle for the status quo in a way that is wise, passionate and practical. Jenny Santi, a leading philanthropy advisor, has interviewed philanthropists rich and not so rich to find out why they give. Her conclusion, engagingly described in The Giving Way to Happiness, is that it tends to make them happier. Both books are the perfect way to recover your idealism after playing too many games of Cards Against Humanity.

Two other enjoyable, practical memoirs from people who have been working for change in hard places come highly recommended. Doing Good Great: An Insider’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Philanthropic Journey by Doug Balfour provides excellent tips from someone who has advised a range of donors and philanthropic organisations as a consultant at Geneva Global. I Am Because You Are: How the Spirit of Ubuntu Inspired an Unlikely Friendship and Transformed a Community is a much tougher, harder hitting book than its feel good title might imply. Jacob Lief, its principal author, levels some fierce criticism at charitable foundations and the short-termist, risk averse ways they tend to give – criticisms that are privately shared by many other social entrepreneurs. You can watch an interview Matthew did with him about the book here, and hear a podcast he recorded with Matthew here.

“Effective altruism” is a concept that has won some prominent advocates, especially among the wealthy of Silicon Valley. Three notable takes on the subject have been published this year. Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher who is the guru of effective altruism, makes the case for a philanthropy that seeks to have the greatest possible positive impact in The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. In Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, William MacAskill, another pioneer of the movement, covers similar ground in arguing for using evidence to drive your giving to where it can have the most effect. If these books are too dry and logical for you, turn to Larissa MacFarquhar’s wonderful, inspirational Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. So many amazing tales of people going the extra mile and beyond.

If biography is your thing, here are the tales of two extraordinary philanthrocapitalists separated by about 500 years. The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger, by Greg Steinmetz, is a rollicking story about the great Renaissance banker and entrepreneur, who reputedly funded Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, dabbled in the news business and co-founded the Fuggerai, the oldest still surviving social housing project in the world. In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance paints a compelling portrait of someone who is shaping up to be a 21st Century Fugger.

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? is the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s high profile entry into philanthropy via a donation of $100m to improve the Newark schools district in New Jersey. Philanthrocapitalists will not enjoy reading Dale Russakoff’s book, which argues that the money was wasted and may have actually worsened the problems it was trying to solve. But they can learn a lot from it, as surely Zuckerberg and his wife are doing as they embark on giving away most of the remaining $44 billion of their fortune. Giving money away well is not easy.

Do the KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately Daniel Lubetsky is a remarkable social entrepreneur. He founded a non-profit in Israel to bring Jews and Palestinians together to work for a viable two state solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis. As a business man he founded KIND, a snack business dedicated to simultaneously being wholesome and tasting good – which was a controversial idea in the food business when he started in 2004. The firm has been a big success, and his book is a great guide to how a social entrepreneur can disrupt an industry for the better.

From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places One of the non-profits featured in Philanthrocapitalism is Endeavor, an organisation created to support the emergence of high impact entrepreneurs in developing countries. Elmira Bayrasli (a longtime friend of Philanthrocapitalism) used to work for Endeavor, and has written a terrific book that showcases high impact entrepreneurs from a wide range of emerging economies, from Pakistan to Mexico. One of the most inspiring stories she tells is of Shaffi Mather, a social entrepreneur whose despair at corrupt public services in Mumbai led him to build a for-profit ambulance business that provides free services to the poor by charging rich customers extra (a fairer trade model that might work well in today’s increasingly unequal developed countries). My review of the book is here.

Building the Impact Economy: Our Future, Yea or Nay Max Martin has written a short, thoughtful book that should be read by anyone genuinely interested in how capital with a purpose can be invested in ways that genuinely make a difference. Doesn’t have all the answers, but as you would expect of an author who has helped shape the emerging field of impact investing, asks the right questions. Two other terrific books explore how finance can redeem its miserable reputation by helping to improve the world. Andrew Palmer, a colleague of Matthew at The Economist, makes a compelling case for more financial innovation in Smart Money: How High-Stakes Financial Innovation is Reshaping Our World – For the Better. And Jeremy Balkin writes with the passion of a self-styled Anti-Wolf of Wall Street in Investment With Impact.

Two books that look at forces that shape our character and help some people lead effective, fulfilled lives whilst leaving others to fall by the wayside. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is the latest important book by Robert Putnam, best known for his earlier hit, “Bowling Alone”, and does a depressingly thorough job of destroying the notion that there is real equality of opportunity in America today. In The Road to Character, David Brooks looks at what makes for good character, attacking the worship of material success and arguing that we would all be much happier if we lived our lives mindful of the sort of legacy we would like to have eulogised about at our funeral.

Inequality: What Can Be Done? Anthony Atkinson, the academic guru of inequality long before Thomas Piketty came along, has written a masterful analysis of the nature and causes of inequality. Even if his book does not quite live up to its title, failing to come up with compelling new solutions, it is a must read for anyone concerned about inequality.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. Anne-Marie Slaughter has delivered a compelling analysis of what remains to be done – and there is plenty – if we really are to have true gender equality in every corner of society. It is not just a matter of women needing to “lean in” more, Sheryl Sandberg-style; every one of us, male or female, has a part to play.

The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World What if the agreement just struck in Paris on measures to fight climate change does not deliver the goods – which, let’s face it, would not come as a huge surprise? As some notable philanthrocapitalists, such as Bill Gates, have started to realise, we may need to resort to a form of large scale human intervention known as “geoengineering”. Oliver Morton, a colleague of Matthew at The Economist, has written a fascinating book on what could be done if something drastic and fast working is needed to stop the planet getting more than 2 degrees warmer.

Further reading:

It is not a book, but this essay, Toward a New Gospel of Wealth, by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, contains much food for thought.

What role paying for buildings should play in philanthrocapitalism is the topic of this chapter, Philanthropic Leverage, written by Matthew for Laying Foundations for Change, a substantial volume of thoughtful tributes to the pioneering “anonymous donor” behind the Atlantic Philanthropies, Chuck Feeney.

The authors of Philanthrocapitalism are deeply involved in the Social Progress Index, a new, improved way of evaluating how a society is performing for its people. You can read all about it here, then watch Michael’s superb Ted talk explaining what needs to be done to achieve the new Global Goals agreed by the UN.

11 replies on “Books of the Year 2015”

The 3 major challenges are population stabilization, a zero fossil fuel future and preserving a habitat our children will inherit. I have been focused on these issues for 54 years. Bob Gillespie, President, Population Communication and Gillespie Foundation

I find myself remembering moments from it long after finishing it and moving on to other books. May not be a book I’m clamoring to re-read but it packs such a punch.

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