Acknowledging power isn’t enough — dig deeper!


Jen Bokoff


Earlier this month, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) released Power Moves: Your Essential Philanthropy Assessment Guide for Equity and Justice, a comprehensive resource for foundations that explores the role of power and privilege in advancing equity and justice. Acknowledging my own bias as a project advisor, I’m beyond excited to see all the different ways this assessment tool will be used to influence philanthropy, because, let’s face it, our sector has a power problem.

“The power dynamic” often comes up in conversations among philanthropoids as “something to watch for” or “be mindful of.” But seldom do I see that acknowledgment lead anywhere. From burdensome (and sometimes inaccessible) grant application processes and site visits, to restricted short-term investments, to truncated feedback loops, to the composition of staff and boards, to public silence on too many issues, we’re slow as a field to move from acknowledgment to action. Power doesn’t have to be negative or something we tiptoe around; indeed, intentionality around knowing where power sits and then building, sharing, and wielding it thoughtfully can be a powerful lever for smarter work and better results. The NCRP guide allows foundations of all types and sizes to explore these topics holistically through both internal reflection and outward-facing learning, and offers a series of actions they can take to advance their equity and justice efforts.

Over the last few years, I’ve teamed up with various colleagues to lead workshops using improv comedy to talk about power dynamics with the intent of diving deeper into a subject that often makes people uncomfortable. These sessions are fun and usually successful, but they present a two-fold challenge: they’re “opt in,” which tends to attract people who are ready to step out of their comfort zone, and they’re small, which means that all that good reflection, learning, and conversation usually isn’t documented. How is an attendee at a session like that — or in any conversation that digs deeper into power and its connection with equity — supposed to bring her learnings back to their workplace? It’s hard, and we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge our own internal power issues as part of that challenge.

A big part of my enthusiasm for the new NCRP tool is that it provides a transparent, shared way for staff to interrogate this topic, as well as a sample six-month timeline to guide your use of the tool. What it doesn’t do is prescribe a single set of answers or solutions (and it’s my belief that good tools shouldn’t — unless, of course, that prescription is for more long-term general operating support!); instead, it raises necessary questions designed to help foundations arrive at their own answers. These provocations are often hard for foundation staff to raise (I know a few who have tried and been shut down), and having a trusted resource to back you up can be hugely beneficial.

At Foundation Center, we aim to democratize data about philanthropy and social sector knowledge, in the belief that they shouldn’t be privileged. When mission-driven organizations pay attention to — and share — knowledge, it inevitably leads to better outcomes. Knowing what others have learned and understanding the broader landscape in which we all work can help bring us together and wield our power and privilege in ways that create equitable, catalytic change. Our eReporting initiative and #OpenForGood campaign are just two (among many) ways that you can get involved, and I encourage you to think about how greater sharing and transparency play into your own social change efforts.

To learn more about the Power Moves toolkit, join us for a free webinar on May 30.

Jen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center.

This article originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest on 11 May 2018. The original article can be found here.

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