Break free of the philanthropy echo-chamber to shine a light on invisible power


Gabriela Cervera


Like many people, I feel most comfortable with numbers and objective analysis, I like simple yes and no questions, and clear right or wrong answers. But, in philanthropy, even when striving to do well and have a positive impact, you can often find yourself with questions and choices where it isn’t simple or easy to tell what the right choice may be. At I.G. we know that intermediaries like us, and the philanthropists we support, hold a lot of power. The Curation with a Conscience event was an opportune reminder of this, delving into conversations about the risks of neutrality and addressing harmful power dynamics in the philanthropic space.

The week before the event, I had been thinking about the responsibility that comes along with my Philanthropy Advisor role. Our advice often guides philanthropic strategies, it recommends who should be considered, how they should be considered, what level and kind of support they should be receiving. We, and the philanthropists we advise, are therefore inherently in positions of power. Yet, we are also human and are therefore influenced by our biases and personal perspectives. In the light of this, this event was part of us trying to address this as a firm, and inviting others to explore the challenge with us.

Alison Carlman from Global Giving, the co-host to the event, put it this way, ‘we must actively wrestle with the power that comes with our funding’. With that ambition I.G. Advisors and Global Giving worked to provide an opportunity to come together with philanthropists and foundations to consider what power means, and how it works within our sector. Several speakers shared how they are considering questions of power and neutrality in their work, and ways in which we can be more fair, transparent and share more of the deciding power with people who are directly affected by our decisions.

One concern I always have about our sector, is the echo-chamber in which we all find ourselves sometimes. We talk about ‘collaboration, power dynamics, social impact, funding lenses’ – terms or buzzwords which may have a very specific meaning to our sector but also have the potential to be exclusionary and create a barrier for new people from all backgrounds who might want to begin their journey towards being more socially responsible. Having conversations about power and neutrality with new people, and in unorthodox spaces, with those whose values and beliefs may be outside our comfort zone is therefore key. This event, with such a rare combination of speakers and audience members from every part of the sector, allowing debate between philanthropists and impact investors, showing differences between international giving approaches, and bringing questions of hidden and invisible power into the light, was a good start.

In the end, it can all feel a bit overwhelming, this sense of responsibility and striving to make the right choice or pick the right process or confront the right problem but, as Tamara-Jade Kaz said during her power analysis workshop, we must acknowledge power, but then be able to act and not be paralysed by it. From my perspective, this means that along the way we might make mistakes but, if we share power and actively seek feedback from those who might hold us accountable, those mistakes will provide us with more opportunities to learn and become better and more responsible intermediaries and grant-makers.

Finally, I loved the term Curation being brought into this space. Curation is defined as, ‘the action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition.’ We think of a curator as a professional with an incredible amount of experience bringing careful thought into every aspect of an exhibition and considering the journey of the viewer and the perceptions of the artists – so why not approach philanthropy in the same careful way?

Gabriela Cervera, Advisor at I.G. Advisors

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