It’s time for an honest dialogue about ‘shifting the power’


Nina Blackwell


If we are not careful, many of our efforts to “shift power” in international philanthropy will not actually shift anything.

Nina Blackwell

31 March 2016
The 2016 Global Forum on Development
OECD Headquarters, Paris, France
Photo: OECD/Andrew Wheeler

Over the past several years, philanthropy for international aid and development has begun experimenting with increasing approaches to shifting power. This is to be commended. Trusting and funding locally born, raised, and reputed organizations, longer term, flexible funding, and participation are all critically important, but if we are truly going to shift power we must be honest with ourselves and each other about what it really looks like.

If we are not honest, no matter how good our intentions are, we will –  at best – waste our own time and resources, not to mention the time and resources of the communities and people we say we wish to support. At worst, we will cause continued harm, ignoring the institutional and structural inequities that plague the system, inserting additional layers and paradigms into it or rewarding performative organizations or gestures that will only continue to consolidate existing power structures and their harms.

To be clear, this is not about undermining efforts to shift power. This is about being honest that unless we truly shift power in our philanthropy, we won’t shift much at all.


Localization is a term coined in the mid-1990s to describe the process of adapting computer programs to different countries and regions, or adapting a product or service to a specific locale. As its origins suggest, it was founded not on the premise of shifting power, but on modifying centrally developed and designed products for a local market. It has largely been a donor-driven trend, involving many of the world’s top donor agencies in the last decade or so. And while it suggests that funding needs to flow to local organizations, it does not question the inequitable systems in which those local organizations operate.

To truly shift power we need to ask ourselves why – as donors – we need to retain the power to trust or why our own perceptions of trust should come into the equation at all when we are not the ones with lives or systems at stake

For example, it does little to question the role or power of international organizations, instead labeling them as “important” or “powerful” actors with whom local organizations need to “cooperate” in order to do development or aid “better”. Starkly, the commitments made to funding local organizations are paltry – USAID has still only committed to directing 25% of its funds to local entities by 2030.

Diversity Equity and Inclusion

Diversity is not de-colonization. There is a significant difference between hiring diverse non-white staff and hiring from the countries and communities in which we fund. Even then, having non-white staff or board members is not enough to make a difference in modern international philanthropy. White-dominant, Global-North, Western-normative, hierarchical values and cultures are so deeply entrenched in our industry that they place undue importance on clinical, neutral, and empirical approaches, elite “expertise”, pre-determined formulas, and linear outcomes.

Systems Change

Systems change is often cited as a mechanism to shift power but it will not do so unless we are honest that too often such initiatives are driven by donors who decide which systems need to change, define what the outcomes should be, and choose the actors that will be funded. Donors demanding large-scale systems change within specifically defined periods of time risk further reenforcing power by imposing artificially external timeframes and outcomes, which – in order to be successful – must be executed by large, Global North or elite-controlled institutions. This leaves little room for community or local input, adaptation, or for organic change.

Trust-based Philanthropy

Trust-based philanthropy is important but to truly shift power we must first critique our current definitions of “trust-worthy” because these concepts are often built on paradigms and standards that are Global North dominant, Western-normative, and often overly capitalistic. For “trust-based” to really shift power we must then extend it beyond grantees to trusting communities to drive their own change processes in their entirety. Finally, to truly shift power we need to ask ourselves why – as donors – we need to retain the power to trust or why our own perceptions of trust should come into the equation at all when we are not the ones with lives or systems at stake.

Participatory grantmaking

Participatory grantmaking also holds much promise towards shifting power but if we are not careful, it can easily continue existing power imbalances.  This imbalance will continue if we – as donors – still retain the power of issue identification, action design, outcome determination, grant size, who gets to participate, what questions can be asked and answered, and what we will do with those answers.

Every effort to shift power is important but to be part of building a truly equitable and just paradigm, philanthropy needs to first understand and be honest about the power that it holds and reinforces, even when it tries to shift it.

Nina Blackwell is the former Executive Director of the Firelight Foundation and supported the fund’s transition from American to African governance, leadership, vision and power

Tagged in: reforming international development

Comments (0)

Matthew Pritchard

Speaking from the perspective of someone that's worked in the 'official' aid space for 30 years now, the honesty needs to go several layers deeper. To begin with, most Official Development Assistance (ODA) comes from taxpayers' money. It is therefore immediately situated within the power structures of the country who's citizens paid the tax. And anyone spending that tax money on behalf of the taxpayer has to do so within the rules and regulations laid down by that country. These rules and guidelines usually do not allow the kind of radical de-powering of the donor country or em-powering of the recipient country, because the power system of the donor country REQUIRES that control is maintained over the money, Philanthropy might have more space to manoeuvre, but I suspect that ODA often doesn't.

Kephas k simphamba

KAFORA CBO c/o box 91 chitipa Malawi

Anne Snick

Dear Nina, thank you for your thoughtful blog. Everyone involved in philanthropy should read it! It gives me hope to see that philanthropists are discovering that it is crucial to trust grassroots organisations and communities. Yet, often these communities have to learn to trust their own strengths and dreams (again) after having internalised neocolonial 'development' and 'aid' practices or programs. Therefore, I hope you are aware of the work of The Constellation (, for they are doing exactly that: strengthening local communities. They bring into practice what you ask for. They may be a key partner to shift the power and build that new ecosystem of development.


Trust is key, as in any relationship. Understanding and supporting each other, mutually between partners, is the real niche of investment. Only then can a true sincere localization process occur.

Peter Appolo

Changes are always a challenge in every aspect of humanitarian development and peace in the agenda called charter for change or localization. Building trust is part of transparency in a meaningful way with positive community-led solutions at grass-root level.

Halima Mahomed

Thanks Nina. Agree that we are not adressing the big foundational questions as we should. We also cant truly shift power unless we are willing to dismantle privilege and adopt a role that puts philanthropy in service of constituency agency. If interested, see Philanthropic Privilege and Constituency Agency at

Andrey Shilov

Indeed, there are tools to make these dreams true, and fix up international aid for good. For example, aid2aim - see more at

Sarah P

Couldn't agree more. Not every fast going train is headed in the right direction. Even the modernisation theory erred in its assumption that development could be a copy and paste. Care needs be taken indeed. But also, what is good for the goose Is not always good for the gander. Thanks Nina!

Ermira Pirdeni

Funders set the agenda and define 'success' without leaving room for those who want to respond to changing contexts. To support change, solutions must be based on the specific context of a community.

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