Philanthropy’s power to disrupt tyranny – starting with itself

Philanthropy needs to decide to follow the path of equity or the path of tyranny.

Written by: Jeanné Lewis

Date: May 23, 2019

In the past 10 years, philanthropy has become increasingly comfortable with conversations about advancing equity.

But NCRP CEO Aaron Dorfman rightfully notes that grant dollars and better grantmaking practices haven’t kept pace with rhetoric.

The idea of equity – when one can no longer predict an advantage or disadvantage based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or ability – is not hard to grasp. But practicing equity requires a commitment to tempering power with accountability.

When I was trained as a community organizer, I learned that our empowerment depended on relationships of mutual accountability and trust.

We expected each person and organization in our membership to give their word and to keep it – the same standards to which we held policymakers and government officials – regardless of position, age or organization size.

Many foundation staff are clear that they are accountable to their trustees or donors, and they are clear that those who receive grants are accountable to the foundation for the use of the money. 

But what kind of commitments do you make as a funder to grantee partners beyond the grant? Do you invite your grantee partners to hold you accountable to your commitments to them?

Without mutual commitments and mutual accountability, no institution can advance equity.

My organizer training also helped me get comfortable with power. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose.”

On those first days of training, we learned that power isn’t bad, but it can be used for a bad purpose.

Yet very few of us could honestly say we wanted to be powerful, nor did we understand how to build power. Power comes from organized money or organized people, and philanthropy has both.

During our Philamplify assessments, NCRP found that foundations’ conversations about advancing equity seldom include an explicit acknowledgement and understanding of funders’ power.

We responded with the Power Moves initiative, centering power in our analysis of how philanthropy can advance equity, because any institution that commits to advancing equity requires an understanding of the source and amount of its own power.

Funders and donors have at least an implicit understanding of power. When a funder talks about weighing so-called risk, the ability to spend in perpetuity or to grow its donor base – these conversations carry an understanding that financial capital affects a funder’s “ability to achieve purpose.”

Some foundations think that their asset size stunts their power, but power is relative – what seems like a little bit of money or a few people in one context can be massive for exploited and marginalized communities.

We who want to advance equity need power because it will not happen otherwise. Inequity is not an unintended consequence of well-intentioned people – it is the result of deliberate choices made decades and hundreds of years ago that determined that some people were expendable to benefit a few.  

Powerful people backed by powerful institutions make similar choices today to the detriment of equity for all.

Power requires accountability to advance equity

Frederick Douglass said:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Our society is in a time of “words and blows.” But our sector often forgets – or doesn’t realize – that philanthropy, too is powerful.

As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was speaking about monarchies and empires, governments without systems of accountability.

Like monarchies, philanthropy holds power in a context in which there are very few measures of accountability. Yet, accountability and power work together to advance social transformation. Relationships of mutual accountability focus power to create a more equitable society.

So philanthropy must choose whether to take the path of equity or the path of tyranny. Funders can invite feedback and accountability, to test and check their power, and ensure that we use it for the “love of mankind.”

If we refuse, we risk becoming the tyrants and courting the resistance that Douglass warned about.

Review the 3 dimensions of power in Power Moves and commit to use the questions in the guide to build stronger systems of accountability that will make your grantmaking a force for equity.

Jeanné L. Lewis Isler is the vice president and chief engagement officer at NCRP. This post is adapted from her remarks at the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy 2019 Annual Conference. Her work is motivated by a vision of the day when most of the people most of the time are empowered.