Nearly every Sunday morning I find myself saying “Yes!” at least once during my scan of the New York Times. This time it was an opinion piece titled “Plutocrats Vs. Populists” by Chrystia Freeland. While being careful not to “diss” the rich and powerful, she raised the spectre of even more extremist politics and rancorous political debates as economic, social and cultural inequality persists and grows. She questions the relevance and future effectiveness of what she refers to as “the Silicon Valley school of politics—a technocratic, data-based, objective search for solutions to our problems…”. She adds: “Plutocrats inhabit a different world from everyone else, with different schools, different food, even different life expectancies. The technocratic solutions to public-policy problems they deliver from those Olympian heights arrive in a wrapper of remote benevolence. Plutocrats are no more likely to send their own children to the charter schools they champion than they are to need the malaria cures they support.”
Working with money and wealth while holding the intention of populism is a challenging proposition. Practical and philosophical challenges arise every second of every day. It isn’t easy and certainly not absolute. Most of us are walking contradictions. But there is an energy that emerges as we slog through the muck and mire of conventional practices and get to what is possible if we set aside the rules of plutocracy and make up our own.
Investing is about money, and talking about money touches all sorts of nerves and sensitivities. It opens us up if we let it. If we are willing, it is a very useful device for cutting through fluff and getting to essence. Follow the money. Use the trail of money as a vehicle to illuminate what is really happening in the world of investing and philanthropy. Not the promises, not the generalizations, not the rationale but the actual activities and relationships.
If I invest a dollar in your fund or your project or your business, show me where that dollar goes. How much is paid out in fees and intermediation? On what basis and under what circumstances and at what rates? How much actually gets to the underlying business or operating entity? On what terms? What does this business actually do? Is it adding to what I want and need to see growing in the world?
To be clear, this is not about holding the lucky recipient of an investment accountable to the beneficent provider. It is not about simply tracking deliverables or metrics. It is about using the flow of money as a vehicle for noticing and documenting relationships and connections, including power dynamics and fair play. In what ways do the flows of money in this relationship reflect my deepest values and ethics? Where are the contradictions? What do I need to do to move toward integration? Answering the questions of why and how money is being used can be one of the more direct paths to clarity.
It’s much harder to operate from Olympian heights when we know the people and places in the valleys. If we truly follow the money, the process becomes a powerful prompt for connecting and relating, for grappling with guilt and denial, for confronting the privilege and power of money and how we are using it. It’s invigorating and exciting, a true pleasure to engage at this level.
I work with wealthy individuals—primarily women—and foundations that are in the process of “walking out and walking on” of this command and control, father knows best world of investing and philanthropy and into a world of integrated capital (see “Walk Out Walk On” by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze). They know at a deep level that delivering solutions from Olympian heights is unnatural and unhealthy, that it perpetuates the myth of separation. They are drawn to populism in its most sacred sense because they know that every living being on this Earth is connected to every other being and that, in nature, there are no plutocrats.