Power corrupts, but not in the way you think


Rob Abercrombie


The turbulent events of this summer, from Trump to Brexit, have made us all think a bit more about power.

What standards of behaviour can be expected of those seeking it? How do we deal with those who feel disempowered in what were our industrial heartlands? Are our own politicians abusing their power when, as with the referendum campaign, they encourage a cruder and less honest level of debate?

Our own power dynamics in the charity sector are not much discussed (an omission NPC is hoping to address in a forthcoming event). Campaigning might be one exception—it is regularly cast as ‘speaking truth to power’—but there is a different, often dysfunctional power dynamic at the heart of much charity work: the relationship between those that have the money and those that want it.

The power inequality between funders and those they fund is inevitable. There is no point lamenting it. Neither should we assume that it is a simple hierarchy, either. Funders can’t do their job without grantees, and need recipients’ ideas, expertise and willingness to make their money count for something. But fundamentally grantees are the supplicants and often feel powerless in relation to funder demands, however reasonable or otherwise.

I have both received funds and dispensed them: I know there is a rosy glow that comes with being a funder. People want to take your calls. They shield you from uncomfortable truths, and they are excessively interested in your opinion. It’s no surprise that there are some big egos amongst funders, people who probably wouldn’t get away with it if they weren’t on the right end of a power imbalance.

This bit of the power dynamic can lead to all sorts of errors by funders. It becomes easy to imagine that there is something special and distinctive about your organisation; or expectations develop that the world must twist itself to fit elaborate criteria, developed by a funder with little reference to what is actually possible.

Many funders and foundations are alert to this, of course, which can result in a different problem: the onset of false humility. Suddenly funders, agonised by an awareness of the power that comes with their money, couldn’t possibly presume to know anything. They don’t have opinions to communicate, or god forbid ideas and resources to bring actual leadership in the sector.

This drives me to distraction. Funders have enormous assets they can bring to bear in addition to money, and to neglect them is to neglect an opportunity to make a difference.

One consequence of false humility is an under-investment by funders in their own resources, as if operating on a shoe-string is more virtuous than being properly equipped to get a job done. It can lead to a fearfulness about engaging with potential grantees (except on the other end of an application form or letter); it can cause funders to ignore years of accumulated expertise and understanding about what works. And it can make funders shy of expressing an opinion when they have the experience and independence to be heard by those that matter.

This is a missed opportunity to do the one thing we all say we are here for: to make a difference. Working with grantees leads to better decisions about funding. Apply accumulated knowledge and whole fields of work can improve. If you deploy all the assets you have with courage—and funders have plenty of the former but sometimes too little of the latter—so you enhance your ability to achieve social change.

Funders are susceptible to some of the more obvious corruptions of power, of ego, arrogance, unaccountability. But the most frustrating abuse of power is neglecting the possibility for change it brings.

Rob Abercrombie, is director of research and consulting at NPC.

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