How can power-shifting philanthropy learn from power-shifting programmes?


Gemma Graham


When a philanthropist takes a power-shifting approach to deciding who, when and how to donate then the impact of that gift is transformed.

Ok, but how can we start making power-shifting in philanthropy possible?

Learning from power-shifting programmes
Increasingly in international development programmes, young people and their communities in the majority world are themselves designing and delivering the change they would like to see. At Restless Development, we specifically focus on supporting youth leadership in development programmes, and in having this focus, we intentionally shift decision-making power to young people.

Let’s apply this power-shifting approach used in programme design to how development is funded.

Typically, it is the funder that decides who, when and how to donate AND they have already defined what the intended impact of the gift / grant / investment will be. Where is the power of the end-user in this? Where is the voice of the individual whose life is intended to be positively affected by this money?

Power shifting philanthropy could start with something as simple as an individual philanthropist opting to make an unrestricted multi-year gift or a foundation deciding to involve the intended end users in reviewing applications. It could end with something as radical as a participatory grantmaking approach that flips power dynamics on their head – an approach being pioneered by funders such as With and For Girls and the Edge Fund.

Four power-shifting steps
During a session at the recent Curation for a Conference event full of funders and philanthropists openly and honestly questioning power dynamics, I challenged the room to apply a power-shifting lens to their philanthropy. We are increasingly asking our donors to shift power to young people.

We are asking them to:

  1. Shift from pre-defined impact to young people designing and delivering, reviewing, adapting, monitoring and evaluating the change.
  2. Shift from tightly restricted and short-term funding to flexible investment that improves sustainability – not just financial, but all forms, and allows for complex change to take place.
  3. Shift from disproportionate application and reporting requirements, such as nine stage application processes and quarterly financial and narrative reports to non-formal applications and reporting via video and apps, in order to ensure greater diversity of applicants.
  4. Crucially shift the power in decision making by ensuring that the ‘end user’ (for Restless Development this is young people) are not ignored, or just ‘consulted’ or even ‘involved’ but are equal partners in decision making.

We know from our experience that enabling young people to lead change strengthens development outcomes. It’s not only the moral argument of ‘nothing for us without us’ but an economic one because the impact is ultimately greater.

Three questions funders can ask themselves
To get started in applying the steps above, funders can ask these three power-shifting questions before engaging in philanthropy:

  1. What is the maximum possible flexibility and duration of the funding arrangement? – this can increase the sustainability of the change.
  2. What are the lightest possible application and reporting requirements? This invites greater diversity of applicants / partners.
  3. How could the end-users be involved in the design and determining the intended impact of the gift / grant / investment? Even better – ask the end users themselves to review and recommend how they could be partners in the process.

By asking these types of questions more often we can all begin to take a power-shifting approach to deciding who, when and how to donate.

Gemma Graham is Interim Deputy CEO, Restless Development

Comments (2)


Great challenge, great questions and doable steps identified to help philanthropy be part of the shifting power revolution, rather than unintentionally upholding the old power dynamics.. thanks

Cheryl Butterworth

Fantastic article so well written and just makes so much sense empowering the people ,, in turn making best use and impact of the funds, resulting in buy in and a vested interest from the end users. The young people are the future.

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