How grantmakers can innovate to shift power


Tyler Dale Hauger


Several years ago, Eni Lestari[1] of Indonesia (Chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance) became the first migrant from a grassroots movement to address the UN General Assembly.

As a member of a migrant community herself, Eni had a clear message from migrant communities to government leaders who were on the cusp of setting global migration policy: do not talk about us without us. Those whose futures are decided upon must be in rooms of power and be part of the conversation if we are to make lasting, deep social change.

While Eni’s words were directed towards government leaders and related specifically to migration policy, her vital message of ‘Nothing About Without Us‘ (a message that was first used by disability rights groups in South Africa) could equally be directed towards our own sector of philanthropy and grantmaking. A sector that is widely built on large concentrations of power and closed-door decision making.

Unjust power relations in philanthropy

For grantmakers working especially to challenge long-standing economic and social injustices, it’s no stretch to assume that the norm of closed-door practices of grantmaking actually preserve and reinforce unjust power relations that already inherently exist in a relationship where one party has economic resources while the other party is seeking it.

The power imbalances become even more visible when donors in the global North provide grants to movements in the global South. The colonial legacies and continued unequal distribution of power and resources on a global level remain an inherent factor in the relationship. 

A way forward

While there appears to be increasing attention to matters of power and philanthropy (including within the EDGE Funders Alliance and the growing #ShiftThePower movement), there is still a definitive need to act in order to respond to the voices of marginalized groups calling for their voices to be genuinely heard. We need to find ways to re-think and innovate how our field operates. 

But what can we as grantmakers do to begin shifting the decision-making power that we inherently hold?

Here are three thoughts:

1. Acknowledge the power imbalance

While it may seem simple, acknowledging the power that grantmakers have is a profound and necessary first step to innovating how we do things. By acknowledging that money is indeed power, and not least that the field of Philanthropy is one that is historically (and currently) built on globally unjust concentrations of wealth, we open a necessary and honest space for introspection and listening with our grantees. 

Acknowledging the power imbalances that are inherent in a grantmaking relationship also provides a transparent space for building genuine partnerships with the movements we support, without ignoring the obvious elephant in the room. Especially in a North/South context, ignoring this obvious power dynamic makes it nearly impossible to build genuine trust or to rebalance the relationship towards complementarity (or even some form of mutuality). 

2. Disrupt power by building genuinely participatory cultures

When we acknowledge the power imbalances in the relationship, we also begin to take steps towards encouraging a ‘nothing about us without us’ ethos into our grantmaking work. For many funders working with participatory grantmaking approaches (including my foundation’s pilot working with grantees across Sub-Saharan Africa), this ethos is an essential basis for innovating grantmaking so that it can serve as a lever to disrupt power.

There is a risk that the term ‘participation’ is at the cusp of becoming a buzzword, or a word becomes yet another form of what can be seen as ‘performative allyship’ (performing a broad gesture that is symbolic in nature, but does nothing to actually improve the status of marginalized groups).

But we need to build cultures of deep and genuine participation in our grantmaking, that is based on the values of mutual understanding, inclusive solutions with low barriers for engagement, collaboration and shared responsibility, and equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities.

3. Deconstruct and rebuild grantmaking in new ways

Researchers in innovation generally agree that innovation requires the ability to not only build new routines but also to recognise when and how to destroy old routines and ways of thinking in order to allow new ones to emerge.

In this sense, we need to go beyond just creating a culture of participation in decision making. We need to rebuild new systems of grantmaking that invite marginalized groups to be genuine owners of grantmaking programs and financial resources as we define, design, introduce, and drive new solutions.

As Hellen Grace Akwii-Wangusa (former African Coordinator for the UN Millennium Development Goals) has recently said, we are living in a rare moment to build the new in this time of a global pandemic. ‘As the flaws in the “old” system are being displayed openly, we are in a historic time where we can more clearly articulate the alternative world we have been trying to build for years.’

Grantmakers must therefore dare to test out co-creation practices and models of grantmaking that are anchored in the experiences and knowledge of marginalised groups. It is a necessary step in innovating the work we do for the purpose of shifting power in grantmaking.

Tyler Dale Hauger is a Senior Advisor at the Karibu Foundation in Oslo, Norway.


  1. ^ The International Migrants Alliance / Eni Lestari is a grantee of the Karibu Foundation through their secretarial host, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants in Hong Kong.

Comments (3)

Jonas Bedford-Strohm

„Nothing About Us Without Us” make so much sense and I hadn’t come across it before. Also: resisting “performative allyship” with genuine participation - very helpful! Reading the innovation section I was reminded of a definition of innovation I’ve come across: “the pursuit of culturally legitimate goals with culturally illegitimate means” - contrary to the worship of innovators after the fact, people make innovation painful for the innovator because they might share the goal but disapprove of the novel way of getting there. That means you can’t get to that new and precious thing without the innovative change of practices, but it’s a painful process… and seeking the approval of the incumbents is often incompatible with reaching the culturally legitimate goal that only culturally illegitimate goals can reach… the „creative destruction“ aspect addresses that here, too. Appreciate your work, Tyler!

Tyler Dale Hauger

Thank you for the kind feedback, @Mariana! It is much appreciated. I look forward to reading more about Pawanka Fund's efforts in this important field - always good to know of others that are also working at shifting the way we do grantmaking!

Mariana Lopez

Excellent article. I would like to invite you to learn about our experience as Pawanka Fund. A global indigenous led fund with the objective of changing traditional Philantropy and the way to make grant making.

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