Re-imagining philanthropy’s power structure to address inequities

Written by: Kimberly Casey

Date: May 15, 2018

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the second in a series of guest features on NCRP’s exciting new resource, Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice. Forefront graciously served as co-host of an early pilot presentation and roundtable discussion that NCRP facilitated on the toolkit in Chicago in December 2017.

Equity has surfaced in the social sector as a work imperative, not only for nonprofits but for philanthropy. Many organizations are looking to incorporate equitable strategies – internally in their processes related to governance and the talent pipeline, and externally in how they interact and support the nonprofit community.

There are a few funders who have moved forward on incorporating equitable practices, but many others are caught in the business as usual mode of: If it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it. Unfortunately, that viewpoint does not lend itself to re-imagining alternative ways of working together.

Regional associations of grantmakers, like Forefront in Illinois, sit at an interesting intersection. While their work is that of a nonprofit, their primary constituency is grantmakers. My role at Forefront allows me to work across the constituencies of grantmakers and nonprofits on a wide range of issues, including equity.

I believe that in order for regional associations to substantiate philanthropy’s understanding and the urgency needed to tackle inequities, we must provide the venues to do so. This does not mean that we are experts in equity, but it does mean that regional associations need to have multiple ways in which to engage philanthropy around shifting power back to communities.

Philanthropy, by the nature of having money, is automatically bestowed with power even in the most collegial collaborative settings. This power imbalance between philanthropy and nonprofits creates a situation where we think and act as if we know what is best for others without actually talking to the people in communities.

NCRP’s suite of self-assessment resources helps philanthropy explore the power from within to uncover ways they may be complicit in the uneven power dynamic. The toolkit also lifts up ways in which there has been success in the sector, in order to pave a way forward that really starts with the end user in mind.

Philanthropies may not be ready to abdicate their power, but they can recognize how it plays out in grantee relationships and community. Once we critically assess our own power dynamics, we will be better positioned to understand how to wield that power to gain greater impact and return on investment.

Many of us use power in our personal lives to connect to other people, to open doors of opportunity and to knit together resources. When we enter into social sector institutions, we often feel as if we should not use our power to make things happen. However, I argue that by not recognizing the power we bring to organizations and the tables we sit at, we continue to support systemic inequities.

Systemic inequities are baked into all that we do; they do not need us to act individually or organizationally. When we do not recognize the power within, and don’t make community the center of influence, we allow system inequities to undermine our wonderful work and good intentions.

Regional associations of grantmakers can help philanthropy re-imagine the future of the sector and how philanthropic resources can be leveraged and deployed. This conversation should start in grantmaker-only spaces where CEOs and trustees are invited to address the issue of equity together. Individuals will need to let go of any judgments that they have about their organizations in order to have a more productive conversation on how to deal with systemic issues in the sector.

How we go about having the conversation can take on many forms, but one interesting way is to incorporate it into a working session that focuses on design-centered thinking. Many nonprofits are using design-centered thinking as a way to look at the same old issues through a new lens. While the analysis may not lead to solving intractable problems, it will lend itself to further internal analysis and organizational critique beyond being good stewards.

Upon this re-imagination, grantmakers can see where there are sticking points in their organizations. Philanthropy can lead, in partnership with communities, to offer solutions to assist with changing the power dynamics that are so pervasive in the sector. Ultimately the goal is to create an open and transparent working relationship of learning together and collaborating with one another to shift the focus back to the community.

I am excited about NCRP’s self-assessment guide because it gives us a place to start to have this difficult conversation. It will present challenges in how we see ourselves, but if we truly are in the work to see change, we must believe that change begins with us and look internally at how we leverage our power.

Kimberly Casey is director of member networks at Forefront. Forefront works to build a vibrant social impact sector for all the people of Illinois by providing education, advocacy and thought leadership, and facilitating collective action around issues that are important to its members and the sector. Follow @MyForefront and @NCRP on Twitter, and join the conversation using #PowerMovesEquity!