In her decade as a private wealth lawyer, 37-year-old Stephanie Brobbey was too busy cutting property deals, exploiting tax loopholes and arranging offshore investments to give much thought to the rights and wrongs of wealth itself.
But a few years ago, finding herself increasingly troubled by the reality of Britain’s growing income gap (Britain now has more food banks than McDonald’s outlets, she notes), she decided to quit.
In a career turnaround worthy of Robin Hood, she then set up a non-profit organisation called the Good Ancestor Movement. The purpose of her grant-funded creation is simple: to promote the idea of “responsible wealth stewardship and radical redistribution”.
In Brobbey’s view, our economic model is fundamentally biased in favour of the few (read: the holders of capital) and against the many (read: unskilled workers, marginalised groups, the global south, and so on). Not only is this unfair, she argues, but the divisions it creates are working against capitalism’s own interests.
The latter point is one that a growing number of economists and corporations are coming around to. Take a new report on inequality from the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It argues that eroding trust in democracy, fuelling civil unrest and constraining economic growth are just some of the deleterious knock-on effects of today’s income gap.
What is ‘deaccumulation’?
Brobbey’s solution? Help the super-rich actively ‘deaccumulate’. And that doesn’t just mean donating to charity. Private wealth-holders need to actively divest their fortunes via projects that promise to make the economic system fairer, more inclusive and more ecologically sustainable, she argues.
As she explains: “We’re in an economic system that is fundamentally extractive and exploitative. The more you can mitigate this by putting your wealth into things that are regenerative for the planet and will contribute to social equity, the better.”
It would be tempting to dismiss such thinking as the rantings of a disaffected radical. Yet Brobbey’s star is rising. She organises a three-month education programme on the downsides of excessive wealth accumulation, for example, which has already attracted dozens of high-net-worth individuals.
Since it was set up in September 2021, the Good Ancestor Movement has advised super-rich individuals on how to actively manage their assets in an intentionally negative direction. “We work with a financial planner to help them figure out how much they actually need,” Brobbey says. “People are looking to set a cap and then identify what they are going to keep and what they are going to give away.”
Tellingly, Brobbey was included in this year’s Spear’s Power List of the 100 most influential people. Others on the list include Bernard Arnault, the billionaire owner of luxury brand LVMH, and Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England.
“They had to invent a new category for me – responsible wealth stewardship,” she adds. “For me, that’s indicative of how fast this is moving.”
There is also an element to which the movement is tapping into the wider zeitgeist (the movement itself takes its name from pop philosopher Roman Krznaric’s best-selling 2020 book, The Good Ancestor). Under the Giving Pledge, for example, high-profile billionaires have committed to give away the bulk of their fortunes. Similarly, under the banner of the Patriotic Millionaires, groups of uber-wealthy progressives in the US and Britain advocate a more equitable tax system.
What does an anti-wealth manager look like?
Brobbey intends to set up a formal investment advisory service dedicated to high-net-worth individuals who are looking to redistribute their assets to what she calls “non-extractive projects”.
Her vision for redistribution differs from traditional philanthropy in that it focuses on disbursing an individual’s net capital assets rather than the interest on those assets (as with typical charitable foundations). She is also dubious of these disbursements generating any financial returns, as per impact investing.
She gives the examples of a social enterprise that may need to buy a building, say, or a civil-society organisation that wants to reclaim a community asset. “These organisations can’t access capital easily, so we’re trying to fill that gap by testing a new form of advisory practice where people with excess wealth can invest for no [monetary] return.”
How to build a movement
The term “movement” in her organisation’s title plays an important role in Brobbey’s thinking. She has no illusions about the size of the challenge ahead, nor of the contribution that her services can play in reversing capitalism’s excessive “hoarding habit”, as she puts it.
Effecting change of this kind, she reasons, will require a huge mindset shift. Wisely, her preference here is for measured debate rather than finger-wagging. Hence the Reimagining Wealth programme, which counts numerous high-profile academics and thinkers among its speakers’ list.
“It’s a kind of immersive learning experience that is both collective and individual. It’s about people’s individual journey but at the same time it’s about bringing together wealth holders,” she explains.
Much of the initial interest has come from the heirs of substantial fortunes, she says, although a growing number of self-made super-rich are now also coming forward. What started primarily as a UK-based movement is spreading further afield, with participants joining from the US, Canada, Austria and Germany.
A tougher nut to crack will be persuading her ex-colleagues in the wealth management industry to get onboard. As a former insider, she knows all too well the default assumption that their clients want to “accumulate as much wealth as possible at all costs”.
“But in reality, that is not always true,” Brobbey insists. “In fact, there are now more people who are pushing back against that.”
The Good Ancestor Movement recently published a 92-page research report to alert wealth managers to this gradual shift in attitudes. The report includes recommendations that include greater regulation of tax advice, the introduction of pro-bono advice for the non-wealthy and the prioritisation of climate risks in financial forecasting.
Brobbey’s core message for her former colleagues is to drop the pretence that they are apolitical. As she argues: “Wealth is not being made or managed in a vacuum… there are always wealth transfers going on, whether it involves employees working on zero-hour contracts or people getting a tonne of money by minimising tax.”
It’s not necessarily an argument that will fly with many wealth managers right now, but in an age of melting ice caps and staggering wealth gaps, perhaps millionaires’ minds are changing. If not, then maybe they should be – for anyone who wants to be a good ancestor, at any rate.