Shifting power starts at home – transforming our organisation to transform the world


B de Gersigny and Eva Rehse


Our beloved Power Shift community emerged from the understanding that philanthropy must not only shift more money towards equitable, intersectional, community-led solutions, but also transform its practices and the philanthropic sector itself. Many of us in philanthropy acknowledge and work to address the discrepancy between our values and how we operate as institutions. We frequently discuss the need to decolonise ourselves and shift power as individuals and institutions, not just in our grantmaking.

Global Greengrants Fund has a long and rich history of power shift in action. Over three decades, the Fund has developed a decentralised decision-making model, in which over 200 activist advisors, representing the communities that experience environmental injustices and human rights violations, decide on the appropriate allocation of resources. With this incredible network, we provide both seed-funding and long-term support that is flexible, unbureaucratic and inspired by the organising logic of ecosystems, where decision-making power is not centralised (in the Global North) and no single entity makes all the decisions. Instead, an organic sensory system adapts and responds to the local context, with a multitude of advisory board decision-makers investing in their local priorities, aligned with the needs of grassroots movements. As an organisation committed to environmental justice, we draw inspiration from the decentralisation of natural ecosystems such as coral reefs. These ecosystems teach us to challenge cultures of separation and individualism embedded in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and endless growth. We recognise that each has a crucial and symbiotic role to play, be it providing nutrient rich resources to the system or building self-sustaining, reef-like structures.

This beautiful model of decentralised grantmaking is deeply rooted in our DNA, yet doesn’t automatically reflect how we are organised internally. Almost by default, over the years we became a hierarchical, top-down, siloed organisation, forced into extractive systems of relating that are all too familiar, from childhood to workplace to wider society. The old colonial paradigm, where the few exert leadership over the many, and where everybody knows their place and sphere of influence, purported to provide security to us all. Yet, it became the corset constricting us from living our values fully, and from addressing the very power imbalances we are working to shift in our grantmaking. We needed nothing less than a full-scale, internal systems transformation.

Recognising this, Global Greengrants Fund embarked on a journey towards inner change and power shift, not just in our grantmaking but in how we, as the people of this organisation and network, show up with and for each other. We believe that greater equity, power sharing, and collaboration will help us better live up to our values and carry out our work in the world with more authenticity and legitimacy. In 2022 we made a decision to become more collaborative, networked, and less centralised, while becoming more self-organised. We began with a focus on ‘inner work’; examining and shifting our individual and collective assumptions and deepening our understanding of power and oppression, and how philanthropy has often adopted the same extractive structures we aim to repair. We are now in the slow and often painful process of shedding the supposed security of hierarchy and re-imagining who we are as an interdependent, self-regulating ecosystem. This approach requires new ways of collective decision-making, building a culture centered in care, working to understand the more insidious nature of power dynamics and building a shared language and toolkit of practices to name and respond to power imbalances.

What we are learning on this journey

We are learning that this process involves much more than just (re-)structuring. It requires resisting the tendency to confine the world and social change to logframes. It is about learning to embrace emergence and non-binary, intersectional approaches that defy quick and easy solutions, and learning to sit with the discomfort of complexity; it is about being strategic on an ongoing basis with an appetite for experimentation. It is about failing, falling flat and picking ourselves up again with renewed perspective – the same skills required for us to shift power in philanthropy.

This does not mean we are not organised or effective, quite the contrary – when a bee colony needs to make decisions about where to build a new hive or how to allocate resources, individual bees communicate with each other through complex dances and chemical signals. The decision-making process is not centralised in a single queen bee but is distributed among the individual worker bees. Decentralised decision-making in social insects allows for efficient and adaptive responses to changing environmental conditions. It also enables the colony to leverage the collective intelligence of its members, leading to better outcomes than a centralised decision-making approach.

We by no means have this perfected yet– we still have some way to go before becoming the fully functional bee colony we aspire to be. Global Greengrants Fund has much to share, learning from both successes and failures, and as much to learn from and with others, with humility and through an ecosystemic lens that centers interdependence, collaboration and ongoing adaptation and response.

Some of the things we are grappling with right now: what does it truly mean to be led by values and principles; how do we move at the right pace and with care; and how can we ensure political alignment around equity and justice is built and maintained? Through this process of deep inner work, we recognise that power is not solely connected to our position in hierarchies. Those who hold positional hold power sometimes feel quite powerless, while those who actively question power may hold more than they realise. Gender and race also disrupt notions of how power is held and who feels entitled to claim it, making ongoing training, and accountable, courageous conversations ever more necessary. For some of us, the change process is too fast, and leads to a painful interrogation of what we thought our organisation looked and felt like; for others, we are too slow, too unclear in our emergent approach, not giving enough direction and leadership. For all of us, letting go of our preconceived notions of how an organisation should operate, and the comfort of a predictable structure, as well as our power and privilege, can be challenging. However, for philanthropy to be transformative, we must uproot the systems that oppress, truly democratise power, and create the space for each to step into their own.

This is relevant to our internal work and is also the roadmap for shifting power in philanthropy. As we consider where to step up and step away in our external ecosystem, we similarly embody this thinking internally: when do we lead, and when do we let the collective lead? How do we transition from transactional relationships to genuinely equitable ones? As we think about the twin concepts of ‘un-wiring’ (decolonising) and ‘re-wiring’ (indigenising) philanthropy (to quote Galina Angarova and Daisee Francour from Cultural Survival), we are also un-and re-wiring ourselves as a body of people, and individuals within our organisation. We stand in solidarity with each other, as we stand in solidarity with grassroots environmental justice movements, working to shift ever more power in our grantmaking, strategically and collaboratively, with intentionality.

These are multi-year transformational processes. We are on a journey, and like all journeys, they require patience. We are often humbled by missteps but are always learning.

By B de Gersigny, Director of Communications and Eva Rehse, Director of Strategy and Global Integration, Global Greengrants Fund

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Tagged in: reforming international development

Comments (0)

Thanks for this.

Nicky McLeod

Totally resonate with this process: as a small NGO in South Africa we are going through a similar evolution, guided by an incredible crowd called Maliasili. Much if what you articulate is embodied in their approach and they are EFFECTIVE! Take a look at their amazing resources about shifting power such as ‘Greening the grassroots’ . Inspiring and very practical. On a micro scale, here is some of our recent experience: Contact us you’re keen to Collaborate 😀

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What does it genuinely mean to be led by values and principles? How can we proceed at the proper pace and with care? How can we ensure political alignment around fairness and justice is developed and maintained?

J Ballentow

I am concerned with Global Greengrants Fund's huge overhead. I'm not sure we need such huge intermediaries any more.

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Cheryl Blanks

While a more democratic staffing policy is good, you have yet to look at the elephant in the room--the very way you learn about the grassroots organizations you assist. Your grantmaking model relies on "trusted experts worldwide to identify organizations working in their regions or issue areas." They are the ones not thinking outside the box and if you are paying more than lip service to a transformative way to find worthy, yet underfunded projects then you should have a open call once a year for RFPs. Too many "experts" have their own agendas and pet projects and tend to keep doing what they are doing.

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Without that corresponding increase in psychological safety and support, transformations spiral downward.

Jeannie G.

I really admire this inner work and process. Good luck to your foundation!

Anriette Vesetuna Mpoto

Nous sommes organisation non gouvernementale de la société civile dénommée: Association des personnes handicapées physiques orphelins et désœuvrées du Congo, sigle APHOC, nous défendons les droits des personnes vulnérables et handicapées en République Démocratique du Congo, nous sensibilisons et et plaidons sur la santé, droits sexuels et reproductifs des femmes et des filles et sur l'autonomisation de la femme et de la fille.

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