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Philanthropic book and media review series — Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, Letting Go

These reviews of philanthropic books and media were written by Lani Evans for Philanthropy New Zealand | Tōpūtanga Tuku Aroha o Aotearoa members.

Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, Letting Go


In 2016 I had the privilege of meeting with a prominent philanthropist in New York. She was using participatory practice to give away vast sums of money focused on improving outcomes for marginalised women. When I asked her why she’d chosen to hand over the decision-making power, she looked at me and said “I’m a rich white woman from Manhattan. How in hell would I know what a disabled black woman from the Bronx wants from life?”.

Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey’s book expands on this idea. The authors are policy wonks with experience in both philanthropy and impact investing. In Letting Go, they build a case for more participatory practice in both spaces, looking at what would happen...if we shifted decision making power away from expert grant makers and investors... (and)...gave that power to people with lived experience of the problems at hand.

The book investigates current challenges: the distance between decision-makers and grassroots actors, the fallibility of market based approaches to social change and the pitfalls of billionaire philanthropy. They look at who defines “impact” and explore the failures that can occur when communities are not involved in developing solutions (google PlayPump or Clean Cookstoves Alliance for some painful examples).

They go on to explore the roots of participatory practice, based in movement building, community development, organising and activism, before providing two arguments for a shift towards a more devolved and democratic process: the inside argument that focuses on the quantifiable value of lived experience (increased efficacy, better outcomes and more impactful investments); and the outside argument that looks at participatory practice as a method of decolonising wealth and bringing equity and justice to the fore.

As a long time proponent of participatory philanthropy, I loved this book, but even if the ideology doesn’t immediately spark your interest, it’s worth a read. The authors provide clear arguments and actionable takeaways: democratise decision making; add community representatives to investment committees; involve outside stakeholders; and put a premium on lived experience.

A must read for anyone exploring process, power, self-determination and equity in philanthropy. 4.5/5

You can read the article that inspired the book here and if the content appeals, I’d recommend following it up with Winner Takes All by Anand Giriharadas and Decolonizing Weath by Edward Vilenevue.


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