News and analysis
December 30, 2015

Notable Philanthropy Books of 2015

Philanthropy produced or inspired a number of compelling books in 2015. Here is a roundup of some of the most notable titles:

The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically

By Peter Singer

Forty-four years after he penned his famous essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," laying out a moral obligation for the affluent to assist the destitute regardless of physical proximity, Mr. Singer continues to argue that some causes are more worthy than others. The bioethicist and Princeton philosopher calls on donors to set aside biography and personal passions. Instead they should be "effective altruists," and apply rigorous analysis to ensure their giving is highly effective.

Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

By Larissa MacFarquhar

What makes some people extraordinarily generous? Ms. MacFarquhar explores the makeup of extreme do-gooders — people who are especially conscious of the suffering in the world and who live their lives in ways that help alleviate that suffering. She writes of people who adopt numerous disabled children, who donate organs to strangers, and who live frugal lives to donate more to antipoverty programs. They include disciples of Mr. Singer's philosophy of effective altruism.

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

By David Rieff

Global hunger can’t be solved by science and technology alone, the longtime policy journalist Mr. Rieff writes. Ultra-rich donors and international-development elites like Bill Gates err when they strive to create measurable technical solutions without considering cultural, humanistic, and political variables. What’s more, private philanthropy is superseding state-run anti-hunger programs, flipping the power dynamic away from the people and into the hands of a few "philanthropcapitalists."

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking

By Richard Nisbett

Nonprofits leaders can’t trust their assumptions, Mr. Nisbett, a University of Michigan psychologist, writes. Instead, they need to run experiments and test programs to decipher how best to appeal to donors and grant makers. The stakes are high, in part because the social consequences can be devastating when public policy or social programs fail.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology

By Kentaro Toyama

Technology only amplifies underlying human forces, it doesn't right them, Mr. Toyama writes, something known as the Law of Amplification. People, therefore, are the key to solving tough social problems, not technology. Mr. Toyama, who has a Ph.D. in computer science, came to that conclusion after co-founding Microsoft Research India in 2004 and running more than 50 experiments trying to harness technology to help the poor. Few had a real impact on those they were trying to help.

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America's Schools

By Dale Russakoff

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg made a five-year, $100 million donation to improve public education in Newark, N.J. It was the Facebook founder’s first major public foray into philanthropy, and Ms. Russakoff, a veteran journalist, has produced the most comprehensive account. She tracked efforts to raise $100 million in matching donations, expand charter schools, and secure a new teacher contract that emphasized results rather than longevity. Mr. Zuckerberg’s effort concluded this year with few positive results.

No Such Thing as a Free Gift: the Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy

By Linsey McGoey

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gets way more credit — driven by heaps of fawning media coverage — than it deserves, Ms. McGoey writes. The University of Essex-based sociologist argues, in fact, that sometimes global philanthropists do harm, distorting local economies and undermining state-run health programs. Operating with private wealth, they are beholden to no one but tiny elite boards. The bigger foundation endowments become, the more they are shielded from legitimate concerns about their influence, according to the author.

Send an email to Megan O’Neil.