Like air, power is everywhere, yet it is often invisible. We may not think about its role in our daily lives, but we live and breathe it. Used positively, power helps communities thrive. But there’s also a dark side.
Like polluted air, power becomes most visible when something is wrong—when someone abuses it, and the consequences are inescapable. Foundations often wait to acknowledge inequitable power dynamics and their impact until events force them to—a police shooting of an unarmed black person in their community, or a parent deported and their family torn apart. Once power is visible, we see how race, gender, wealth, and other identifiers influence who has power over whom.
But even unseen power can do harm, sometimes unwittingly, as when our health system treats white people better than people of color or our school funding formula disadvantages low-income students. Indeed, it lurks behind every major disparity in access or outcomes for marginalized people.
It also hides in foundations’ bank accounts and boardrooms, in every meeting with a grant applicant or grant partner, in every community meeting or city council meeting. It can be found in grantmaking practices that inadvertently favor some applicants over others.
Three reasons why funders don’t face power head on
The best way to deal with power constructively and effectively is to acknowledge it even when it seems invisible. Yet many funders don’t. What keeps them from dealing directly with power as a driving force in our communities?
1. Foundations lack enough institutional buy-in.
People tell us their leaders haven’t all bought into the idea that power is essential to advance equity. Can non-executive staff make progress without the CEO’s support? Or can the CEO tackle power issues without the board’s approval?
As Michelle McMurray, senior program officer of health and human services at the Pittsburgh Foundation candidly shared in a recent webinar on sharing power:
Sometimes the seat we sit in, we’re kind of in between; we may feel like we don’t have the power to make the change. Someone’s going to tell us “Not now. Not ever.” But do the first, next thing you can do—you do have some power. Find that, and channel it, and use it for all it’s worth. Because the only other option is to do nothing.
McMurray was speaking to fellow program officers, but she could just as easily have been addressing a CEO, a vice president, a grants manager, an evaluator, or a communications chief. Everyone within an institution has some point of leverage, some opportunity to act.
During a different webinar introducing our toolkit, Marcelo Bonta, principal at the Raben group, encouraged a small group of change agents to reflect and experiment in one program area or part of the foundation, then to begin to make changes within their sphere and gradually influence other parts of the institution.
For example, a grants manager can develop more inclusive application processes by asking nonprofit leaders of color what prevents them from applying for a grant. A program officer can begin building community power by funding the capacity of grant partners to participate in coalitions. A trustee can advocate for using the foundation’s bully pulpit more often.
2. Funders aren’t far enough along on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Many foundations are beginning to look at the extent to which their staff, board, and internal practices reflect DEI values, which requires an examination of dominant white culture. Funders may be hesitant to focus on how to use power externally to advance equity while this internal process is still underway or has not yet begun. One attendee of our toolkit introduction webinar noted:
We’ve made progress—we've developed communications resources so that we speak in a consistent way about equity in our work. Yet there’s no effort to operationalize equity through changing processes and practices. Equity isn’t “in the water” yet. For example, we don’t have honest conversations about the white, male, cis-, straight, Western norms in our organization.
Can you build, share, and wield power externally if your internal house is not in order?
Answers to this question depend on each institution’s situation, and where board and staff express the most energy or urgency to strengthen DEI practices. Some funders do internal work first, some start externally, and some work on both simultaneously.
During the same webinar, Gita Gulati-Partee, who consults extensively on equity issues as founder and principal of OpenSource Leadership Strategies, noted that a funder can “turn off strategy but not culture.” Yet the two are inseparable—the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, so to speak. Thus, it may be easier to take a break from strategy to focus on internal culture, but eventually you’ll find your way back to strategy.
Regardless of which path you take, it’s important to think through and communicate the timing and sequencing of the foundation’s process for addressing internal and external aspects of power and equity with staff, board, and constituents in ways that are intentional and transparent. And know that each path will take time and deep effort; board and staff will need to put off other responsibilities to explore power meaningfully.
3. Foundations are afraid to take greater risks.
As philanthropic advisor Allen Smart recently noted, philanthropy is generally risk-averse, even though it has more freedom to act boldly and innovate than other sectors of society. CEOs may fear what will happen if they challenge their boards to have tough conversations about power, or if they ask their grant partners for honest feedback. Trustees often see their role as financial stewards and don’t want to jeopardize their foundation’s endowment. Financial and legal advisors tend toward caution, reinforcing risk aversion. Leaders may fear harm to their own reputation and their institution’s if they take a risk and fail.
These are all real and legitimate concerns. However, funders must weigh them against the risks marginalized communities face every day just trying to get by, as well as when they try to speak truth to power, whether that’s policymakers or foundations. Funders must also consider the risk of inaction—of letting our communities continue to suffer, or of failing to achieve equity goals and perpetuating the status quo.
We all engage in power dynamics all the time, whether or not we are aware or acknowledge it. We may unconsciously enable power for some and disable power for others, causing harm or missing opportunities to use power for good. It’s time for us to meditate on power so that we can be more conscious about how each of us manifests it—to notice who benefits and toward what end. In doing so, the obstacles to using it effectively will become surmountable and inspire mindful action.