Power: One of three provocations for funders to face the ‘fierce urgency of now’

Written by: Molly Schultz Hafid

Date: June 14, 2018

Editor’s Note: Molly Schultz Hafid received the Neighborhood Funders Group Award for Excellence in Philanthropy during last week’s Raise Up Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. In her stirring acceptance speech, she talked about three “provocations” for funders to face Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now” – trust, power and privilege. Below is an excerpt that highlights her reflections on power.

In a recent conversation with my daughter, she shared a fun fact from her day at school, which is that the triangle is the strongest geometric shape. At the risk of repeating unverified fake news from the 2nd grade set to all of my favorite people in philanthropy, I googled it and geometry.com confirms that “a triangular shape is the strongest one.” So, inspired by my daughter, I want to reflect on three sides of our work we need to face with what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the fierce urgency of now:  trust, power, privilege.


Molly Schultz Hafid with Dennis Quirin, Kevin Ryan and Garland Yates during last week’s Raise Up Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

Molly Schultz Hafid with Dennis Quirin, president of NFG, Kevin Ryan, program officer at the Ford Foundation and Garland Yates, senior fellow and managing director of the Community Democracy Workshop, during last week’s Raise Up Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

NCRP in their new Power Moves toolkit for advancing equity and justice shares a definition from Rashad Robinson of Color of Change. He says, “Power is the ability to change the rules.” When you all head home and start to think about trust and how to build it in to your work, I think a key step is recognizing and embracing the power you have to change the rules within your institutions.

Vanessa Daniels of the Groundswell Fund also recently offered thoughts on using our power by sharing an Alice Walker quote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

To be honest, early in my career, I thought that real power was behind the doors of private suites at meetings and conferences like this where small groups sat around and made deals. I thought the key to being influential and powerful was to get invited into the rooms. After making it into a lot of these rooms, I started to feel like all we were really doing is remaking our own elites. Small groups of people with money deciding who should get it.

Regardless of where you came from before philanthropy, how big your endowment or portfolio is, and how challenging your internal institutional culture might be, we each have power.

For some of us, it is comes from our clarity of purpose built on a life of experience. For others of us, it is something we are made aware of quickly upon arrival in philanthropy. And still others of us really prefer not to think about it at all because we think it is a bad thing. We might find it deeply uncomfortable at first but eventually – after a few nice dinners, cushy conferences and quickly returned phone calls – our sense eventually becomes dulled.

However our power remains, and we do things like ask for feedback and take time to listen, while knowing deep down that we don’t really agree and are just being polite; say yes and no all day; draw the lines around our program areas; frame our strategies to our boards; decide which calls to return and which meetings to take; decide who to invite to a meeting and how to design the agenda; determine the acceptable outcomes to merit continued support; decide who on our teams has the freedom to speak for themselves and who has to get permission.

My next provocation is to think about how we can build more distributed networks of mutually accountable leadership instead of controlled campaigns of influence and alignment.  In other words – leadership development and organizing.

Vanessa also reminded us that the “boldest organizing – from janitors, to farmworkers, to foundation program staff – often happens from the ground up, not the top down. And that “Any system or institution run by human beings can be organized. There is absolutely nothing exceptional about philanthropy in this regard.”

Regardless of how we feel about it we are in powerful positions, and those of us who shy away from it end up ineffective at best, and destructive at worst. In our isolated and unaccountable sector – the only ballast against abuse of power is collective and community accountability.

Being recognized this evening at NFG is an incredible honor and while we enjoy this reception, just a few miles from Ferguson, it is also a humbling reminder of MLK’s charge to us that “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Editor’s note: Read Molly’s inspiring speech in its entirety, including her reflections on truth and privilege.

Molly Schultz Hafid is associate director at TCC Group. She is also a member of NCRP’s board of directors. Follow @Brooklynmolly, @TCCGROUP and @ncrp on Twitter. Join the conversation on building, sharing and wielding power in philanthropy using #PowerMovesEquity.