Are You Using Your Power, or Leaving it on the Table?

Acknowledging and talking about power is taboo. We’re uncomfortable with the fact that some wield greater strength and influence, and feel no shame about using it to hold sway over others. In spite of our laws and regulations, our checks and balances, our moral and social norms nurturing restraint and respect, people use power to bend rules, exclude and disenfranchise, distort facts and disseminate misinformation, manufacture fear, and secure preferential treatment.

Disillusioned, some of us retreat into silence, and lose sight of our own agency and power. But what if more funders intentionally use their power for good?

In my work helping small-staffed foundations and donors step into leadership roles, I have learned that the most dynamic, effective funders use their power judiciously—but boldly. In a paradoxical way, the source of their power is passion, curiosity, and humility. First and foremost, these funders are great listeners. They don’t begin by thinking they know the answers; they venture out to ask questions. They realize that as funders they have unique perspective, unique access to experts, and unique abilities to soak up knowledge. They venture deeper into their issues, until they figure out things no one else has really understood, and discern how to make change.

The journey takes them far beyond making grants, to convene, mobilize, commission research, raise public awareness, advocate, and put pressure on stakeholders to stay on course. They become activists, brokers, and catalysts.

What does power look like in action?

  • A foundation executive made phone calls to local government agencies to find out why checks to his grantees were late. Within days, the agencies received their contracted payments.
  • After discovering that a local domestic violence shelter wasn’t picking up urgent calls from a county referral agency, a foundation director arranged to meet the shelter’s director with her board chair and two community leaders to demand responsiveness.
  • A foundation executive took the initiative to broker a deal with the city’s mayor and parks department to take over a struggling YMCA that provided the only recreation services available to young people in distressed neighborhoods. See  “The How and Why of Saving Our YMCA” >>
  • A family foundation trustee met with her state legislator to brief him on the impact of state budget cuts on public education programs proven effective, such as school counseling, as part of a collaborative advocacy effort to build legislative support for education.
  • During listening sessions around a state’s juvenile justice system, foundation staff and family members heard about a promising yet ignored strategy for preventing young people convicted of mild offenses from being locked up in prison. Lending its reputation and voice to the idea, the foundation was able to support a group of innovators in getting the idea tested and implemented. As a result, hundreds of youth got needed counseling and services, and the state saved millions.

Holding Yourself Back

You may admire the bold actions of these funders, or you may recoil at their audacity. My point is that each funder—knowledgeable, connected, immersed in the dynamics and histories of these challenges—made a calculation that acting boldly would create better outcomes than leaving the status quo intact, or letting others act on their behalf.

Will you use your power for good?

Alice Walker wrote,“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Over 20 years, I have learned that most small funders don’t use their power. Why not?

  • Funders don’t take the time to appreciate the assets they hold beyond money. In our culture, money consumes our attention and monopolizes the conversation about philanthropy. Assets such as reputational, intellectual, and moral capital get sidelined by the glamour of dollars. See  “Getting Involved Beyond Grants” >>
  • Knowing how and when to use power requires a deep understanding of a community or issue, an immersion and engagement that only a few funders attain. Many funders keep their distance, relying on proposals, phone calls, and e-mail interactions. Therefore they never put themselves in a position to discern the right moment to act boldly.
  • Foundations and donors are criticized for wielding power when they make too many demands of nonprofits, or set the agenda for nonprofits or a community. Broad critiques such as these instill timidity, and impel many thoughtful, engaged funders who listen to their communities to bury their deep knowledge and unique perspective, and pretend they do not see the leverage points for change they have discerned. Such funders end up shying away from opportunities to responsibly use their power for the common good.

Acting Boldly

To move beyond the scruples and unease you may feel about using your influence, consider the following.

  • Recognize that power is always at work, and “being neutral” is not possible. Every problem or issue in a community is shaped by different interest groups—citizens, government agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions, trade groups, and for-profit businesses. When you arrive at the point of deciding whether to take assertive action, recognize that doing nothing means maintaining the status quo, or leaving decisions up to other players, who may have very different goals and agendas from your own goals, the community’s goals, or the well-being of the people you are working to empower. Consider the consequences, and costs, of not acting.
  • Understand your chosen issue or community. Engage and listen, soak up knowledge, become an expert. Use your unique access and perspective as a funder to develop insight. Once you see leverage points to make change, you will feel greater confidence to convene, advocate, speak out.
  • Choose an important issue you feel passionate about. Being personally invested and committed makes it more likely you will summon the energy and courage to act boldly, when the time calls for it.
  • Don’t assume others will act. Your peers who catalyze change come to understand, at a certain point in their journey, that if they don’t take the bold action that years of listening and insight recommend—if they don’t act—no one else will. They look around, and realize no one is going to do it. They step up.
  • See yourself as a player at decision forums—someone with knowledge, experience, connections, reputation, power. An Exponent Philanthropy member once told me, “My voice as a foundation trustee carries greater weight with my legislator than others’ voices. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I use it to advance issues that impact children.” Every issue philanthropists work on is influenced by government budget decisions and rule-making—whether funders like it or not. Engage in policy discussions on the issues you care about; the law offers you great freedom to do so.

I had the great privilege of learning from Alan Egly, former executive director of the Doris and Victor Day Foundation in Illinois and a founder of Exponent Philanthropy. Reflecting on the foundation’s work, Alan said, “Sometimes, you have to be daring.”

Editor’s note: This blog is re-printed with permission of the author and Exponent Philanthropy. The original post is available here.

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Power Dynamics in Family Philanthropy

This Content Collection shares perspectives from nonprofit leaders and foundation colleagues on the challenges of power dynamics in family philanthropy, and possible solutions for how to address these issues.

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