Power: can philanthropy go beyond the buzzword?


Tatiana Cary


In April of 2019, the Skoll World Forum hosted an event titled ‘Is philanthropy the solution or part of the problem?’ It opened with the question: is philanthropy at a moment of reckoning? Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth answered this question with a call for a historicisation of philanthropy in recognition of its colonial roots and at times, its perpetuation of white supremacy. More recently, Edgar Villanueva contributed to Curation with a Conscience, a day-long event exploring power, risk, and the impossibility of neutrality. He again urged funders to place anti-racist practice into the centre of self-reflection. Addressing these questions in the philanthropic space in the UK brings its own complications and institutionalised challenges that require re-contextualisation.  What does anti-racist anti-colonial philanthropy look like in the UK? And is this even possible? 

More and more funders, in the UK and elsewhere, are taking a reflexive turn. Reflexivity is loosely recognised as an introspective practise of self-awareness. It is fundamentally the practice of rigorously asking yourself questions. In philanthropy, this has meant funders reconciling their complicity in the conditions that have led to the existence of philanthropists themselves. Given that the very existence of philanthropy is predicated on inequality, the concentration of power that funders hold does not happen in isolation. These conversations and debates are familiar to those working in international development, and critical philanthropy settings are being pushed to the forefront.  Feminist philanthropy, in particular, has been part of this reflexive process for a long time with many of the answers in fact explored in recent issues of Alliance magazine and extensively by the Association for Women in Development.

But what does this mean for philanthropy in the UK? What are the specific forms of oppression and power that perpetuate the inequalities that those working in the sector, aim to resolve? What norms and rules of philanthropy work perpetuate these inequalities?  Who gets to decide who is invited in or excluded from these rooms, and who is building the table, is still a matter of re-centring the power of some at the expense of others.

Tamara-Jade Kaz, facilitator of a power analysis workshop for all attendees at the event, posed these questions directly through a reflexive exercise. As she aptly emphasised in her power analysis workshop: guilt and shame doesn’t lead to action.

There are many hesitations for those engaging in this space: fear, discomfort, dismissal, denial. There are also those that feel the pressure of the urgent need to act who may view these steps as necessary but bordering on navel-gazing or unnecessary self-flagellation. Reflexivity, as a research practice, may provide some clarity here. While sustained reflexive practice is much-needed in the sector, we should be cautious in being overly congratulatory. Being reflexive and fully embracing this process can bring a sense of catharsis. Others view these ‘confessionals’ as a means of assuaging guilt and returning to the status quo. Conducting a power analysis, and then not changing the actual practices or processes is insufficient and bordering on negligence.

The gap for someone reflecting on their power and then actually taking action on it is vast. As ‘power’ becomes a buzzword in the sector, it risks losing its political and ethical weight if not historicised, and contextualised (to geography and organisational context, as well as within the broader global philanthropic system).The age-old question then is, how to translate reflexivity into action? If philanthropy is at a moment of both reckoning and of reflexivity, will it rise to the challenge?

Tatiana Cary, PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

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