Liberate Philanthropy: Let’s Talk About Power

This is the fifth post for “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Over the next few months, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

To talk about liberating philanthropy, we must talk about power: the structural and systemic power that has allowed philanthropy to operate within its current colonial mindset. We must begin to understand, name, and openly talk about how we use (and abuse) power within philanthropic organizations.

At the core of these conversations, we want to be asking where the money is coming from, where it is going, and who is making those decisions.

Power can be “centralized,” “shared,” or “decentralized.” In centralized philanthropic organizations, boards and senior staff set priorities and determine who has access to the foundation’s money. Most foundations use some version of this model, and grantees and grant applicants are at the impact of a board’s decision-making process.

Today’s more forward-thinking foundations are exploring models of shared power through participatory grant making strategies, offering some grantees a chance to provide input in a decision-making process or sit on an advisory board. These are ways to begin shifting power.

Decentralized systems deliberately “push power to the edges.” Decision making is moved out of the hands of a professional team and into a more distributed network. A decentralized grant making strategy might focus on strengthening ties between grantees and maybe grant applicants, so peer-to-peer learning and collaboration can emerge. It is an ongoing dialectical practice that requires an openness to risk, failure, consistent change and exponential growth.

Here’s an example from The Pollination Project: Two months ago, we received a compelling application to support a village school in a rural part of Kenya. The proposal came from a well intended, white, westerner who wanted to help. She was referred by a trusted source, and it was genuinely a good project. I would have funded it at first glance if it were up to me. But our Kenya leadership team, comprised of 6 Kenyan Pollination Project grantees, immediately questioned the project, asking why the application wasn’t from a local leader. One of the team members who also works on education at the village level in Kenya, visited the project and found a passionate local leader with no email access and who did not speak English.

Students at the Jericho Village School, Mpekatoni, Kenya

As with many of the grassroots projects we fund outside of the US, local community leaders may not be in a position to secure grant funding from a foundation like ours so they rely on western visitors and volunteers to help. This also means the funder relationship ends up in the hands of the westerner who will eventually leave the country, and the local leader loses the chance to have a direct connection with the donor over the long term.

In this case, our team member worked with all the stakeholders, including the original grant applicant, to ensure the Kenyan leader had a strong voice in the project and was the main liaison with the Pollination Project’s Kenyan team. The school was funded and the grant funds were sent directly to the local leader.

We have seen variations of this story hundreds of times. From undocumented youth leading social change projects in California; to mainland Chinese activists who are at great personal risk if they take funding from a western foundation; to people who don’t have internet access. It is unlikely these grants would have been funded in a centralized decision-making system.

Pushing power out to the edges of a network is a way for a network to infinitely expand.

When grantees are encouraged to build connections with each other (and with grant applicants), it creates the possibility for new collaborations, better strategy, and far more impact.

Philanthropy’s attempts to liberate itself from the inside means grappling with power. The extent to which we can decentralize power will ultimately determine our ability to hasten the distribution of financial wealth, economic power and social control.

Perhaps we may eventually come to realize that philanthropy can’t liberate itself. But that’s another blog post for another day.

Alisa Hauser is the Executive Director of the Pollination Project, a global foundation that makes small grants to grassroots social change projects worldwide.