Reflecting on Power and the Funder-Grantee Relationship

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Approaching the end of my second year as president of the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation, which improves life outcomes for children through education, I’d been giving a lot of thought to the overall field of philanthropy. Then, reading a recent New York Times op-ed by Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, something struck me.

As Walker points out, access to internships and the social capital they bring is a privilege unevenly distributed among our youth. Words like his bring attention to this important issue, but are the words we generate always matched by actions and deeply sustained investments that will spur transformation by those doing the work in the field? Philanthropy, perhaps the most profoundly privileged field of all, often under-invests in, under-values, and places unrealistic expectations upon, the grantees toiling each day to bring about real change.

A key factor, I realized, is the grantor-grantee power dynamic. For me, those with the real “power,” i.e. the knowledge and ability to make change happen, are the grantees and partners who do the work. Yet those same organizations — working tirelessly on behalf of children or other vulnerable populations — must come to us to obtain resources,  which places us in a position of power. Therein lies the distortion.

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