Power, Trust and The Measure of Philanthropy

October 26, 2020
Hilary Pearson

Shift the power! We hear this everywhere now. In politics, in the economy, in communities, in the justice system, in media. And it is being used by many, with sincere conviction, in reference to philanthropy. The exhortation to big donors and foundations is to shift the power they hold because of their wealth, their status, their connections. Hand over the funds, give without conditions, let others decide for themselves how best to help their own communities.

Is this a measure of good philanthropy, good giving?  How much power you have shifted? I am not so sure. But then, what is the right yardstick?

This is the question asked by Tate Williams in a recent piece for Inside Philanthropy. And it certainly provoked some thinking on my part. He called his reflection Generosity and Impact Aren’t Enough. Let’s Judge Philanthropy on How Well it Shifts Power.  The title gives you his conclusion. In his words, “we often gauge the success of philanthropists by some combination of generosity and impact...I increasingly think we ought to, if not completely replace those yardsticks, supplement them by considering as a measure of true philanthropy a funder’s success at shifting power out of its own hands and into others. This could involve funding program areas that challenge plutocracy, putting into place more diverse and participatory governing structures or simple grantmaking practices that yield power and control to recipients instead of funders.”

I agree with him that measuring philanthropy solely by how much is given, while important, is incomplete. The big giver is not inherently better than the small giver. Indeed, outsized generosity itself may be seen as an expression of privilege not of good will. Nor is it adequate to measure philanthropy by impact, defined as the achievement of intended outcomes. As Williams says, if a foundation achieves the intended outcomes, but it is focused on the wrong things, is it effective? Williams suggest that a better gauge of good philanthropy is the degree to which it lets go of control, in effect, letting go of power.

I agree that we should consider generosity, impact and power in gauging effective philanthropy. But here is a nuance. Power is not just about money or privilege. It’s about networks, and ideas and knowledge. Power is not fixed in my view, to be had only by one and therefore not by another. In this sense, I am not willing to share Williams’ framing of the effective philanthropy yardstick as how much power is handed over.

I am more persuaded by the language of shared power as suggested by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans in their 2018 book New Power. According to Timms and Heimans, new power is created by ubiquitous connectivity…in other words the devices we hold in our hands, and other technologies.  New power is in the hands of the many, not the few. It flows like a current, not hoarded like gold. In my review of New Power in The Philanthropist, I noted that technology gives us all (or all of us who can access it) ways to participate, to collaborate, to create, and to engage in new forms of community, which can be not only virtual but evolve into actual human connectivity. New power models and thinking are certainly affecting and transforming philanthropy as much as any other domain. Participatory grantmaking is surely an aspect of new power. The possibility of building rapid feedback loops with beneficiaries and grantees; giving agency to the beneficiaries and to the nonprofits who support them; bringing multiple voices to the table; designing data collection directly with the owners of the data; and designing projects together rather than at arm’s length, are all instances of new power thinking and practice.

The key ingredient in keeping the current flowing in this new power model is trust. One of the reasons that funders may not be responding to the idea of shifting power is that it is presented as a “giving away” rather than as an affirmation. Using a framing that focuses on “haves” and “have nots”, donors and grantees, us and them, diminishes the power of both. Funders may think that in giving up the control offered by foundation-managed and self-designed grant proposals, reporting requirements and restrictions of various kinds, they lose control over impact. But what if funders and grantees have agreed first to enter into relationship? In other words, what if they have done the work to build understanding and trust with each other?

When you sit around the table rather than across it, you are going to be sharing the space not wondering about who gets what. And listening to each other to build understanding and to share in shaping the work and the outcomes you want to achieve together. Indigenous approaches to being in relationship and in a circle of trust have much to teach philanthropy, in my view.

To sum up, effective philanthropy is more about sharing and exchanging power. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has launched a terrific podcast series, Giving Done Right, where you can hear the voices of community organizations and funders who are reflecting on the measures of effective philanthropy today. Listening to their episode on Making and Measuring Impact with Tiffany Cooper Gueye, the Chief Operating Officer of Blue Meridian, a funder collective, I was struck by her comments on the importance of “proximity”.  What she is saying is that to have impact you must trust and to trust you must get close. Close to people, close to issues, close to organizations. She also put her finger on the nature of the funder-grantee relationship. It’s not about simply handing over funds without conditions. “Unrestricted (money) is not unaccountable (money)”. In other words, funders and grantees must work with each other in a relationship of reciprocity and mutual accountability. This is a yardstick I can agree with.

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