Power has a mixed history in the social sector. Early on, many organizations addressing issues like poverty, health, or the environment adopted internal processes that reflected the inclusion and collaboration they sought to create in the world. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, many put in place more-hierarchical structures in an effort to further professionalize their management approach and to better steward their resources. This trend continued in the 2000s as social sector organizations became ever more corporate. Today, many of these organizations are modifying their structures as they shift power from headquarters to their staff in the regions and communities where they work.

This flux of power structures over time reflects the social sector’s underlying discomfort with power, which makes sense given that social sector organizations view the abuse of power as the cause of many injustices they aim to eliminate. This discomfort shows up culturally as an unstated belief that only the “many,” not the “few,” should exercise power. Those working in the sector are thus caught between job descriptions that require the use of power and an organizational culture that distrusts it.

This dynamic can easily undermine an organization’s performance and impact, as in the following examples:

  • A large non-governmental organization (NGO) decides to implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system (a suite of software applications for capturing, managing, and interpreting an organization’s business data) to improve its data-driven decision-making, but efforts to solicit stakeholder input devolve into the “tyranny of the many” as each group insists on its own requirements. When the project manager says “no” to a demand, the group in question gets the CEO to ask the project manager to “please take another look.” The ERP system is finally launched 18 months late and way over budget, with a large number of customizations that don’t function smoothly and confuse users, who in turn blame the technology, since “it doesn’t work as advertised.”
  • In preparation for its 25th anniversary, a global NGO gathers anecdotes about its widely touted governance model, which convenes an annual national dialogue in every country where it operates. But the Secretariat in London is shocked to learn that community leaders across the board are dissatisfied with the model—it takes too much time and effort, and produces meaningful programmatic changes only years later, if at all. Community leaders desperately want the Secretariat to play a more proactive role in strategic decisions but fear they’ll lose their place in the program if they make their views known.

It is difficult for social sector organizations to accept power exercised by the “few,” but this use of power is critical to making impact and achieving a mission. Not every decision can—or should—be made by consensus, and organizations can become more effective by owning the power structures that exist within their institutions. Then—if they’d like—they can evolve those power structures to more closely reflect their cultural values by:​

1. Mapping power. Name the power that belongs to each person in the organization. Specifically:

  • What decisions is each person allowed to make without consensus?
  • Are there principles or other constraints that should guide their decisions, and what happens if they don’t work within those constraints?
  • What is the basis of their power—for example, knowledge, experience, age, seniority, gender, or legal authority—and do people generally see it as legitimate?

Answering these questions should produce a clear framework that assigns certain decisions to certain people, and identifies decisions where inclusion is unnecessary, infeasible, or undesired. At this point, do not make judgments about the framework. As Sergeant Barnes says in the movie Platoon, “There's the way it ought to be. And there's the way it is.” This framework describes the way it is. Each individual needs to come to terms with it, even if they aspire to change it.

2. Comparing with values. Next, assess how well this power framework aligns with the organization’s values. Specifically:

  • Where does it align with stated values (for example, on the organization’s website), and where does it deviate?
  • Where does it align with the values implicit in the organization’s work in the world, and where does it deviate?
  • Where does it tend to generate excitement and energy, and where does it tend to foster resentment and disengagement?

It is important to focus here on the roles themselves, rather than on the leadership styles of the people currently filling those roles. Power can produce tensions in any organization, and these tensions are often very predictable given a certain structure. The purpose of asking these questions is simply to check whether or not the structure itself matches the organization’s values, both explicit and implicit.

3. Acting incrementally. Identify common ground on how the organization can evolve the power structure so that it becomes the best next version of itself. Specifically:

  • Are there cases where the basis of decision-making power is very clearly (to everyone) a remnant of the past?
  • Do any instances of incongruity between the power structure and organizational values demand immediate action to achieve integrity?
  • Which decisions now made by the “few” would be better made by the “many” (more inclusively), and vice versa (less inclusively)?

Rather than letting the perfect become the enemy of the good, ask how the organization could modify the existing power structure to more fully embody the values it shares? If a significant gap remains, then acknowledge the unstated values the power structure conveys as it is, and leave open the question of how to resolve the incongruity.

4. Telling the story. Create a cultural narrative within the organization that allows people to use the power they have without identifying personally with that power or being identified with it in the minds of others. Specifically:

  • How can the organization use the power framework as an operational document to which people can refer?
  • When someone takes on a new power, how might the organization outline what decisions that person can make, and what decision-making principles and constraints apply?
  • What verbiage can people safely use when they are exercising their power to remind others that it is theirs to use and that they are doing so for the good of the organization?

These steps will help remind people that they have agreed to a certain power structure in the service of greater effectiveness and efficiency, not because of any ill will on the part of those exercising it. Also, having greater clarity around what people can (and cannot) expect when they express their opinions will likely help them feel freer to do so.

Obviously, it is difficult to talk about power. The topic triggers emotional memories we all have of parents, teachers, bosses, and others who have had power over us. Social sector organizations that undertake this process can expect emotionally charged discussion with impassioned exchanges about fairness, equity, justice, and inclusion.

But that’s why having an honest conversation about power can be so, well, powerful. We live in a world where many are realizing that the power structures that exist do not (or no longer) align with our values. Some try to disrupt those power structures, while others respond with resentment and resignation. A more constructive response, however, is to face the discomfort of that realization, and to devise new and effective power structures that reflect shared values. By doing this for themselves first, social sector organizations have an opportunity to model precisely what the world needs.

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