Look Inward: A Push to Get Funders to Think More Candidly About Power and Equity

  weedezign/shutterstock

 weedezign/shutterstock

When the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) debuted Philamplify a few years ago, we cheered the project on. As NCRP notes, many grantmakers operate in a bubble, rarely receiving critical feedback on how they’re achieving impact—or how they aren’t. For a dozen foundations, Philamplify’s assessments offer detailed suggestions to correct organizational shortcomings, especially within the context of movement building and equity. (By the way, GrantAdvisor is another more recent attempt at eliciting feedback on funders, through crowdsourced reviews rather than detailed assessments. And the Center for Effective Philanthropy has long been a leader in this area.)

NCRP’s latest endeavor, an assessment toolkit called Power Moves, grew out of Philamplify. This time, the sector watchdog group is promoting a do-it-yourself approach, calling on funders to assess their own commitment to equity and justice. As the name indicates, power is the central concept. NCRP makes the case that without a frank analysis of the power relations that inform grantmaking, funders will never be able to change the systems that perpetuate the problems they want to solve.

This is hardly a new critique of philanthropy, but it's one that's been getting more traction lately amid a larger discussion about inequality. Over recent years, a number of foundations have engaged in efforts to listen closely to the communities they serve and incorporate their feedback into funding strategies and guidelines. The Fund for Shared Insight has become an important hub for work to create stronger feedback loops, and we're hearing more reports of participatory grantmaking by foundations, an approach that brings the "end users" of philanthropic dollars directly into funding decisions. 

Yet deeper questions about power are still often off the table in the foundation world, especially when they're entwined with issues of race and class. According to NCRP, there's not nearly enough introspection on this front within philanthropy. 

As the group's chair Starsky D. Wilson wrote, “The privilege of philanthropy and power dynamics with many of our partners allows us to blame others for a lack of missional progress and social change. Meanwhile, we pat ourselves on the back for valiant efforts.” As a powerful moneyed interest, philanthropy must be willing to critique itself, especially since it's unrealistic to expect dependent grantees ever to speak the full truth to money.  

The Power Moves toolkit is organized around three “power dimensions,” and NCRP leaves it up to individual funders to determine how many they’ll engage with. An underlying premise is that philanthropy should be an active participant in today’s social struggles rather than an aloof neutral actor. The folks behind Power Moves—who include an advisory committee of leaders from foundations, social sector nonprofits, and consulting groups—argue that when funders assume a definite and “well-grounded” point of view, they become more credible, not less.

Power Moves’ three categories cover a lot of ground. “Building power” involves the movement building strategies that more funders have embraced since the 2016 election: things like civic engagement, advocacy and organizing. “Sharing power” takes a swing at the funder-grantee power dynamic, which groups like NCRP have criticized for inadvertently prioritizing white, male, economically privileged viewpoints. (NCRP has also examined the regional component of that privilege in its "As the South Grows" reports.) Finally, “wielding power” widens the focus even further, looking at how funders can bring their social capital and reputations to bear in the public square.

The one word that NCRP leaves out of this is “politics.” That’s to be expected in this sector. But there’s no getting around the fact that power-building is a deeply political endeavor, as is performing any kind of organizational self-assessment centered on power dynamics in today's intensely polarized moment. As we’ve seen, plenty of funders have found it necessary under Trump to articulate their values more clearly. Whether that means “resisting” the current administration’s agenda (quietly, in the case of many top legacy funders) or pursuing a more conservative course, the Trump effect has nudged philanthropy ever closer to the political sphere. While some funders have long operated in or around that sphere, within the letter of the law, many remain skittish. NCRP wants foundations to operate more boldly and has even assembled a glossary of terms to accompany the toolkit identifying what kinds of advocacy they may legally pursue. 

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Power Moves offers a staunchly progressive framework, as you might expect from NCRP. While that may be off-putting to certain funders, it’s useful for foundations of many stripes to think more about issues of power. That includes centrist foundations frustrated by how often their goals are undermined by changes in the public policy sphere or the economy. Conservative funders have spent decades working leverage points in the world of think tanks and research to dismantle the welfare state and ease corporate regulations—with wide ranging effects on communities across the U.S. While direct service work is important, foundations that don't think beyond that approach—and seek better understanding of who gets what in U.S. society and why—are likely to see limits to their impact. 

Power Moves, as we mentioned, is emerging at a moment of growing interest in participatory and collaborative approaches that run counter to philanthropy’s traditional power dynamics. Another development worth flagging is the rising momentum around giving circles, a favorite among smaller donors who don’t fit the "rich white guy philanthropist" stereotype. Women are often key players in these circles, and more broadly, women's funding organizations—like the Women Donors Network—tend to be on the vanguard of the effort to remake philanthropy more equitably. Other outfits, like the Solidaire Network’s Emergent Fund, the Foundation for a Just Society, Resource Generation, and the Chorus Foundation, are also keenly attuned to issues of power, as are some older funding groups like the Bread & Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Neighborhood Funders Group is engaged in an effort to bring together bigger philanthropies to back organizing in marginalized locales.

You’ll notice that funder affinity groups and “philanthropy-serving organizations” are playing a key role in the push to bring a new ethos of equity to the sector. That role is expanding, too. One element of the Trump effect on philanthropy has been to accelerate important conversations about class, race and power, and these support organizations can be key facilitators of that dialogue. That said, a key premise of Power Moves is that sometimes the hardest conversations must happen internally, within foundations. 

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