Philanthropy experts swap tips on sharing power

Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Date: September 26, 2018

For funders to share power with their grant partners, they need to acknowledge the sources of their wealth and privilege, use hard data to discern inequitable practices and go beyond rigid funding and communication approaches to build consistent, trusting relationships.

What would you see if you held a mirror up to your foundation? That “Philanthropy ain’t fair” was one response, as NCRP facilitated a frank conversation about funder practices that can get in the way of productive, equitable relationships with communities.

In this 3rd webinar of NCRP’s Power Moves series, grantmakers and nonprofit leaders discussed what it means to share power with grant partners and communities. NCRP’s Power Moves assessment guide helps funders examine how well they build, share and wield power to advance equity and justice.

The presentation, “Ceding Control: Sharing philanthropy’s power for equitable, inclusive relationships,” was cosponsored by Funders for LGBTQ Issues, moderated by Alfonso Wenker, co-founder and principal of Team Dynamics LLC, and featured 4 seasoned practitioners in the art and science of listening to and co-leading with communities.

What does it mean to share power in philanthropy?

Sharing power is about trusting communities and making decisions collectively with them, says Lindsie Bear, program director of the Native Cultures Fund at the Humboldt Area Foundation.

To do this well, grantmakers need to build trust, which requires honesty about the sources of foundation assets and power.

When working with Native communities, this means openly acknowledging the colonization of indigenous peoples and exploitation of their resources that enabled whites to accumulate wealth over centuries.

When grantmakers exhibit distrust – for example, with onerous grant application and reporting requirements – it compounds the effects of historic oppression.

Michelle McMurray, senior program officer for health and human services at The Pittsburgh Foundation, views sharing power as trying to be in a different kind of relationship with stakeholders.

She does this by meeting them in their own spaces, whether at community events or on social media, and by seeking non-monetary ways to support their work beyond grants, such as making connections to other funders.

Key to this approach is getting feedback, including through informal interactions. It also means having the courage to turn the mirror inward to self-critique with hard data and with love, so foundation staff can move from believing in racial justice to actually operationalizing those values.

Bill Gallegos brought a grassroots perspective as co-chair of the Funder Engagement Working Group of the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact (BEA) Initiative, and as former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE).

He advised that building trust in order to share power requires moving beyond one-off conversations to ongoing, consistent interactions among funders and communities, with resources for child care, food, transportation and other supports that enable participation.

While program officers are often comfortable being the go-between with grant partners and other community leaders, they have to deal with power hierarchies in their own institutions.

Jane Leu, founder and CEO of Smarter Good and co-author of Unicorns Unite: How nonprofits and foundations can build epic partnerships, noted that many boards don’t interact with nonprofits enough to understand their challenges, and nonprofits are afraid to be honest with funders.

Sharing power requires changing the mindset that the money is the foundation’s, rather than being held and used for public benefit.

What are concrete examples of sharing power?

  • Jane Leu recommends advisory boards comprised of grant partners as a proactive step to help funder boards get more comfortable with sharing power.
  • Lindsie Bear acts on feedback, input and requests from the community, which helps build trust. She also recommends thinking outside the box of foundation perpetuity to envision giving the resources back to the community.
  • Michelle McMurray gave community leaders funding to meet on their own, without the foundation present, and then worked through conflict productively to design a social justice fund, which is advised by Black and Latinx women activists.
  • Bill Gallegos urges funders to show greater trust in grassroots organizations to manage grant funds and to move beyond a narrow set of criteria and metrics that exclude movements led by communities of color from receiving grants.

How can funders learn more?

Lisa Ranghelli is senior director of assessment and special projects at NCRP and primary author of Power Moves. Follow @NCRP and @lisa_rang on Twitter, and join the conversation using #PowerMovesEquity!