Power and knowledge hierarchies in philanthropy, activism and beyond


Kit Muirhead


Black, feminist, lesbian, Audre Lorde once famously wrote; ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.  

As was discussed at the ‘Philanthropy Party’, a two-day interactive conference hosted by the UK Funders Collective, Lorde’s metaphor holds significant weight when thinking about power and knowledge hierarchies in philanthropy, activism and beyond.  

Over two days, the Collective developed a space for honest discussions, critical self-reflection, and transformative thinking. The event aimed to interrogate power structures in dominant philanthropy approaches and brought both activists and funders together to create new tools to dismantle the ‘masters house’.  

Through a range of presentations and interactive activities, it prompted attendees to question transactional funding approaches and devise solutions that prioritise collectivity, honesty, fluidity and, surprisingly, joy, as foundational tenants in transformative philanthropy work.  

Breaking down ‘power over’ paradigms in philanthropy work 

Following the welcoming remarks, day one began with an interactive session hosted by co-convenors, Starter Culture. Here, attendees engaged in a trust-building exercise and were introduced to the important concepts of ‘power over’ versus ‘power with’.  

‘Power over’ is typically present in top-down, transactional funding models, whereby a powerful funder exerts influence and control over less powerful funding recipients and their agendas.  

Alternatively, ‘power with’, underpins bottom-up, relational funding models – it describes a process where ongoing relationships of trust are established between funders and grantees. Feedback loops, collaboration, flexibility, and continuous collective learning are favoured in ways that respect local knowledges, enhance shared power, and promote transformative social and environmental change.  

And so, how do we achieve ‘power with’ and promote this transition from transactional to relational funding models? How do we create new tools to dismantle the masters house?  

During the session, Starter Culture demonstrated that the transition begins with ‘inner-led change’. ‘Inner change work’, requires us to explore our own subjective positions, biases, and assumptions in relation to ‘power over’ culture and the interlinked systems of patriarchy, colonialism, whiteness, ableism, and heteronormativity.  

Attendees collectively formed clearer visions of how to progress a model of philanthropy, that addresses entrenched power imbalances and gives equal voice to individuals and communities.

Alongside this deep relational work, it asks us to prioritise personal wellbeing – to seek ‘joy’ over the endless pursuit of ‘success’ in the work we do. By first looking inwards, we can become better ‘attuned with how we are impacting and being impacted by others’. We can build empathy and accountability within ourselves, and therefore approach ‘outer change work’ – that is the work involved in breaking down harmful structures in society – in ways that are respectful, intersectional, and transformative.  

Over the next two days we were supported, by both the convenors and our fellow attendees, to pursue our own ‘inner’ change work and relate this to our experiences working within the philanthropy sector. We heard from activists and organisations from around the world and discussed topics of mutual aid, the informal economy, reparations, sustainable development, localisation and more. 

Through these discussions, case studies and reflective sessions, it became clear that ‘power over’ culture, and the activist/philanthropist divide is maintained through a set of implicit and explicit assumptions and expectations. Attendees emphasised that such expectations typically align with the agendas of those in power, ultimately stifling more sustainable funding approaches that support a ‘power with’ culture. 

Some key expectations and assumptions that were said to maintain ‘power over’ culture are outlined below.  

  • ‘Professionalism’ was highlighted by attendees as a mechanism for preventing ‘inner led change’ and maintaining the ‘power over’ paradigm in philanthropic funding and practice. Both activist presenters and attendees shared their experiences of being de-legitimised by those in power for not being ‘professional’ enough in their approaches to work. Several attendees described professionalism as ‘the trojan horse of colonialism’, one that is used by powerful actors and funders in Europe and North America to set westernised expectations of behaviour and exert ‘power over’ the agendas of activists and grantees in the majority world.  
  • Favouring ‘quick and efficient solutions’ to complex social problems was noted as another technique of ‘power-over’ culture. Attendees highlighted that through promoting ‘quick fixes’, power-over culture leaves little time to conduct ‘inner-led change work’ and discourages a deeper interrogation of power structures that uphold inequitable systems in funding and practice.
  • Funding structures that maintain competition between activists and grantees was also highlighted as standard ‘divide and conquer’ technique used in ‘power over’ culture. For example, some attendees discussed how meaningful collaboration and knowledge sharing in activist spaces was hindered by the presence of funders who engaged in practices of cherry picking.  

Where to now?  

Many discussions at the Philanthropy Party were dedicated to designing new tools for dismantling dominant and harmful hierarchies between funders and grantees. Amongst many things, attendees emphasised the following actions for achieving ‘power with’ culture in the philanthropy sector. These included: 

  • Ensure funders prioritise ‘inner-led change’ in their funding decisions and theories of change. 
  • Challenge funding approaches that favour western conceptualisations of ‘professionalism’ and support, promote, and allow space for alternative ways of working, thinking, and building relationships.
  • Commit to funding the ‘organisational infrastructure’ of grantees. Do so in ways that shift embedded power structures and create environments where grantees feel safe to ‘ask for help’, without the fear of funding reversal.
  • Ensure alternative, informal, and local spaces that drive social and environmental change are granted the same degree of legitimacy as spaces at ‘official’, national, and supranational levels.
  • Discourage cultures that promote competition between activists and grantees. Instead build spaces for work that stimulate collaboration, knowledge sharing and trust-building.
  • Encourage ‘consent-based’ decision making in philanthropy and activist sectors.
  • Promote accountability, responsibility, transparency, and truth-telling amongst funders. This includes supporting initiatives that interrogate how wealth has been accumulated, disseminated and controlled.

Overall, through its unique, participatory, and highly inclusive approach, the Philanthropy Party carved out space for discussions on power, trust and money that are typically discouraged in mainstream philanthropy spaces. As a result, many attendees, including myself, left the conference feeling renewed and equipped to interrogate our own positions within structures of inequality. From this, attendees collectively formed clearer visions of how to progress a model of philanthropy, that addresses entrenched power imbalances and gives equal voice to individuals and communities, who are typically positioned outside the realm of power.

Kit Muirhead is Partnerships Manager at Alliance magazine

The Philanthropy Party was hosted at Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts and co-convened with Global Greengrants, The Indigo Trust, Accountable Now, Voice Global and Success Capital Organisation with contributions from activists and practitioners from across the majority world.

Comments (1)


An excellent account of the Party, thank you!

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