Are foundations willing to give up power?

Alliance magazine

‘In our society money brings power, and the power of philanthropy is just another aspect of that,’ reads the editorial to Alliance magazine’s September 2013 issue, ‘Philanthropy and Power’. Has anything changed since this issue was published?

In January, we asked you to pick your favourite issue from Alliance’s archives, and you selected ‘Philanthropy and Power’. Now – as one of our 25 moments to celebrate 25 years at the heart of global philanthropy – we’re revisiting the central questions of the issue.

  • What has changed in the power balance between funders and grantees since our 2013 issue?
  • How are funders working to make their funding practice more equal?
  • Are foundations willing to give up power?

Experts from around the world weigh in.

Moukhtar Kocache, Rawa Fund, Palestine

Moukhtar Kocache

The last decade has witnessed growing critique of dominant practices, nudging our sector towards greater accountability, transparency, and equity. My own worldview has significantly changed in ten years. I went from being a programme officer at Ford Foundation tasked to dramatically end its 50 years of support to Palestinian civil society, to being part of Rawa, a participatory grantmaking fund supporting creative Palestinian community initiatives.

However, from a bird’s eye view I’m afraid not much has changed in our sector in terms of power imbalance. Given the many challenges only worsened by a global pandemic, one would think that philanthropy would be undergoing a sector-shaking reckoning. There are glittering pockets where it feels like this is happening (EDGE Funders Alliance, Global Fund for Community Foundations symposiums, to name a couple), but what about at a broad existential level? Are philanthropies of a certain scale ready to dredge up and send to the dustbin the very same white supremacist colonial logics and extractive practices they have thrived and depended on to amass their power and fortunes? Can the impetus to re-balance power finally outpace the compulsion to keep accumulating more – mission and ethics be damned? Is it really the legal and fiduciary frameworks and the top-down accountability mechanisms that are so stubborn and slow to change, or is it us?

The most promising innovations and future visions for philanthropy are rooted in lived experience, and largely emerge from the Global South (e.g., the mushrooming of participatory funds) and from communities dismantled by the same forces that have built much of the sector’s power.

Echoing many of the calls from a decade ago, here are some things funders must do:

  • Provide trust-based flexible multi-year funding, because lasting, impactful, resource-efficient change comes from people with lived experience.
  • Fund outside your comfort zone, since re-balancing power will often mean taking on the lion’s share of the risk.
  • Support what, like Rawa, are often narrowly referred to as ‘intermediaries’ and other models that build wealth, financial self-determination, and access to resources at the community level, such as community foundations, community investment funds, and cooperatives.
  • Practice gender, racial, and economic equity at institutional and sector levels, including by hiring, promoting, and supporting leadership and network building/infrastructure for Black, indigenous, and people of colour people; uplift and support South-South relations.
  • Practice accountability to, and centre care for, communities and sector staff, since donors’ imbalanced power can harm both, including through mission drift and the sexual harassment and abuse of fundraising staff by powerful donors
  • Align investments with mission – some inspiring change-makers are paving the way, including family foundations like Nathan Cummings Foundation – and strive for equitable non-extractive returns and equitable endowments.
  • Go beyond, or well beyond, minimum endowment spending requirements.

In many places around the world, philanthropy can generate and safeguard rare spaces for civic engagement, community decision making over resources, independence, free expression, reparatory justice, and more – if it chooses to do so. Let us choose urgently and boldly, and not return to the same reflections and calls in another ten years.

Colleen Jankovic contributed to this piece.

Jovana Djordjevic, FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Serbia

Jovana Djordjevic

In the last eight years, the rise of authoritarian regimes along with closing spaces for civil society globally has increased the pressure on philanthropy to reshape relationships with grantee partners by imposing concrete obstacles to funding grassroots organisations and movements. This has led to two main trends: donors committing more to transformative practices and funders who changed course, pulling out much-needed resources under pressing circumstances.

In the first case, traditional foundations started to move towards more participatory funding approaches, guided by the expertise of grantee partners. Avoiding exposing communities to even greater security risks, they changed bureaucratic processes and invested in building relationships of mutuality and trust with the organisations they support.

At the same time, the political, social, environmental and economic crises the world has been facing is demanding from the sector a deeper critical reflection on how the systems of oppression that we support to dismantle often manifest in our practices and organisational cultures. As a result, in addition to a growing commitment to participatory grantmaking strategies, more funders are addressing power dynamics by also increasing the availability of flexible core multi-year resources.

Are philanthropies of a certain scale ready to dredge up and send to the dustbin the very same white supremacist colonial logics and extractive practices they have thrived and depended on to amass their power and fortunes?

Over time, questions around why letting go of power have been giving space to conversations around how. But when it comes to practice, some foundations struggle to embody participatory ethics that extend to accountability and transparency, threatening to reduce participatory grantmaking to a buzz expression, emptied of meaning concerning power relations. We still see activists and organisers being instrumentalised when invited to spaces facilitated by funders where they come across impositions of strict and predetermined conditions and priorities that limit a true domain over the decision-making processes.

This allows grantmakers to negotiate transparency and accountability towards communities around strategic funding priorities and to end long-term commitments to supporting groups in the middle of a global crisis that would evidently impact them the most, as in the case of Novo Foundation in 2020.

It poses a key question: how do major foundations decide about their strategies and priorities if not by centring the needs, views and voices of those who they are meant to serve? With big funders still holding the power to shift their strategies away from the grassroots organisations, it is clear that we still have a long way ahead of us if philanthropy actually wants to walk the sweet talk about fighting for social justice. It implies true participatory processes to co-create strategies centred on care that in times of crises bring us closer to the communities we serve, not away from them.

Jen Bokoff and Diana Samarasan, Disability Rights Fund, United States

Jen Bokoff

Since 2013, when Novo Foundation’s emphasis on longer-term, general operating support and trust in grantee decision-making was considered novel, we’ve seen philanthropy make some important shifts in addressing power. These include more donors moving from project to general operating support, increase in grantee feedback mechanisms, institutions of community advisors, growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and participatory grantmaking. Some of these changes are responses to shifting contexts, trends, and networked influence in the sector, but many are championed by team members that push the status quo. Jasmine Sudarkasa offers a powerful example about how speaking her truth as a queer Black woman led to stronger grantmaking, sharing that ‘philanthropy must make room at the decision-making table for those with the lived experience to recognise what this moment requires.’

Diana Samarasan

The Disability Rights Fund launched in 2008 with a participatory model that brought people with disabilities into governance and grants decisions and met the global disability movement’s slogan, ‘nothing about us without us.’ There were very few similar models. Since then, other global intermediary grantmakers focusing on marginalised communities – including UHAI-EASHRI, Red Umbrella Fund, and FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund – have also taken off. More recently, larger funders operating from more traditional models have also converted to participatory processes or are trying them out. Traditional funders are also directing more funding to participatory grantmaking efforts and funding research into it.

However, philanthropy is still quite slow to change and relatively unwilling to give up power, especially to people not viewed as ‘experts.’ Money is still conflated with wisdom, and the charity model a la Carnegie persists. This is especially true when it comes to funding of marginalised identities. The majority of those working in philanthropy are still white, northern, and not disabled. This creates power imbalances and other challenges for leaders with non-dominant identities in the sector. It also unsurprisingly affects funding; for example, only two per cent of global human rights funding from foundations supports persons with disabilities and only 20 per cent of Covid-19 relief funding was directed to Black communities.

It is becoming more difficult for philanthropy to assume that real change only comes from the top-down; instead it requires the full participation of people who are most affected by the issues donors care about.

Intersectional issues are also rarely acknowledged. If we had a dollar for every time a foundation told us they ‘don’t fund disability’ even though they support groups like women, BIPOC, and LGBTQI persons, we could relax our fundraising efforts! It is good to see organisations like Whose Knowledge?, a feminist collective of Black and brown women from around the world, and Borealis Philanthropy, addressing these gaps and acting with understanding that the liberation of marginalised identities is bound together. They underline something that trust-based grantmakers understand and practice – the constant undoing of power relationships. Like in other parts of society, philanthropy needs to #ShiftThePower and move decision-making about funding to the communities it has extracted from or intends to support.

We can’t do this without structural change in who’s making the decisions and inputting (meaningfully!) into strategy. This change needs to come at staff, governance, and advisory levels, and with important attention to engaging people respectfully. Decisions really need to be driven by communities, which also creates much-needed accountability. Without that, it’s not enough because people at the top of foundations like Novo can still just change their mind!

Hannah Patterson, The National Lottery Community Fund, United Kingdom

Hannah Patterson

We sometimes treat foundations as a homogenous group. There are lots of funders out there who are seeking to give up their power, and there are also a lot of foundations who aren’t willing to give up that power. Edge Fund, Disability Rights Fund, Red Umbrella, Mama Cash, With and For Girls, Global Fund for Community Foundations, The Other Foundation (the list goes on and on) all work in ways that shift power to the communities they are seeking to serve – this is built into their strategies, governance and models of working. There are also foundations and funders who are trying to shift their approaches – the amazing work of Jasmine Sudarkasa and colleagues at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation who completed a $15 million grant-making round in support of Black lives, of Porticus who are embedding Meaningful Participation into their strategy, to Blagrave who are centring Young People’s voices in their work. There are also individuals who are willing to give up power but are grappling with big, often bureaucratic organisations. Struggling internally to challenge and question the systems and approaches they are working with looking to create change through their own organisations. There’s not a yes or no answer to this question. I think we are at a tipping point, and we have a critical mass of people recognising there’s a problem. Can the majority of us manage to do something about it?

Here’s hoping we can recognise the possibilities and opportunities of shifting power and can move into this space with willingness and enthusiasm.

Cynthia Gibson, Consultant, United States

Cynthia Gibson

Power has always been a thorny issue in philanthropy and, historically, relegated to conference panels on the ‘power differentials’ between grantees and funders. Funders would acknowledge them, and grantees would nod politely then run out of the room thinking ‘they just don’t get it.’

About ten years ago, that began to change, with more attention to power writ large – not just its differentials. That shift reflected what was occurring in the larger world, with technology allowing people to access systems and institutions in ways that were previously unimaginable. ‘People power’ was upending entire fields, democratising what had once been the purview of a handful of gatekeepers.

Except philanthropy. While there was certainly more conversation about transparency, accountability, and diversity, most of the focus was on how the field could adapt to – rather than confront the forces – driving the need for transformation. After all, this was still an era in which effectiveness reigned supreme, the definition of which was largely in funders’ hands. Power issues were acknowledged but sharing that power with the people closest to the problems that funders were trying to resolve was still something viewed as inconceivable, nor was there much incentive to do so.

Not all funders were on that page, however. In the U.S. and internationally, a set of mostly small, community-based, and/or constituency-led groups were quietly undertaking new approaches to philanthropy – from giving circles and crowdfunding to participatory grantmaking. The common thread was putting power in the hands of people with the kind of lived experience essential to making smarter decisions about who gets funds and under what criteria.

Money is still conflated with wisdom, and the charity model a la Carnegie persists. This is especially true when it comes to funding of marginalised identities.

To say these efforts were prescient is putting it mildly. Since the Alliance’s 2013 special issue on power, change has barreled into philanthropy. Public criticism has become not only acceptable but welcomed. Addressing racial injustice has moved to the top of the priority list. Outright challenges to the larger economic tax structures that make philanthropy necessary are becoming more common.

In light of these trends, it is becoming more difficult for philanthropy to assume that real change only comes from the top-down; instead, it requires the full participation of people who are most affected by the issues donors care about. That’s not an easy sell, especially among funders used to calling the shots, but, auspiciously, those once-closed doors are starting to crack open with the advent of initiatives that are encouraging funders to trust, respect, listen to, and value peers/grantees. All of these are essential steps in breaking down the power imbalances inherent in philanthropic relationships.

What’s often still missing, however, is a commitment by funders to actually share or even cede power – the kind that comes when peers are not only asked for their feedback but for their participation in incorporating that feedback into all aspects of the grantmaking process, including funding. If and when this kind of authentic participation – and the ethos behind it – becomes standard practice, the Alliance’s next special report will perhaps be able to focus more on the benefits of sharing power, rather than on the inequities the absence of it can create.

Allison Davis and Peter Kostishack, Global Greengrants Fund, United States

Allison Davis

Global Greengrants Fund works internationally on human rights and the environment, and in the critical years since 2013, we have seen the world become starkly more unequal, conflictive and autocratic, while climate and ecosystems are increasingly unstable. The pandemic has worsened these crises and shown funders how the concentration of wealth and power, combined with disinvestment in public services, has made societies more vulnerable. Philanthropy is starting to embrace its role in addressing these social, economic, and environmental injustices. It is also exploring ways to decentralise its power and decision-making to support the important work of social movements.

Peter Kostishack

Even with these changes, we have not seen a commensurate increase in access to funding for those least in power, grassroots and local efforts on the frontlines around the world. More funders now recognise that inequality is at the core of most of the issues they work on and are starting to incorporate social justice framings into their programmes. But they are also challenged because the tools they’ve traditionally used to address problems – competitive processes, big bets, predictable outcome-based strategies, familiar organisational structures, and short-term measurable deliverables – don’t lend themselves well to actually shifting power, or getting more resources, connections and power into the hands of frontline communities and local efforts to mobilise solutions.

We believe resilience and sustainability increase when more power and governance is shifted to local civil society. Key strategies that facilitate this shift include:

  • Involve social movements of those affected by problems in decisions about framing, strategy development, and resourcing.
  • Recognise the social privilege of those who control funder decisions and bring an intersectional understanding to all aspects of our work.
  • Strengthen existing civil society and movement infrastructure from the bottom-up by funding organisational development, people, systems, networks and processes.
  • Invest in local, regional, community, and indigenous funds, rooted in the movements that they serve, that can get funding directly to grassroots efforts nimbly and responsibly.

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