Philanthropology 3.0: Power Dynamics in Philanthropy
November 21, 2011
by Catherine Covington
On Friday, November 4, I traveled down to San Mateo to participate in a day-long workshop at the the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The workshop was designed by Emerging Practicioners in Philathropy (EPIP) a group I’ve recently become more involved with as a Steering Committee member. The workshop, titled “Philanthropology 3.0”, is part of EPIP’s new Philanthropology™ Program, a grantmaker education series. The day’s curriculum focused on power dynamics and spurred thoughtful discussion and ideas among the 20 participants in attendance. I left feeling even more energized about the innovative ways RSF is impacting the world of finance and philanthropy and how we seek to change and redefine traditional power dynamics related to grantmaking and investing.
One of the most powerful and interesting parts of the day was the ongoing discussion we had about the ways power dynamics affect and influence philanthropy’s potential for social impact. We each charted and then shared as a group the power relationships between various players in the philanthropic landscape, and almost everyone’s chart had private foundations at the top of the chain of command with individual donors, community foundations, non-profit organizations, and non-profit service recipients following in that order. The prevailing theme demonstrated that many people feel there is a direct correlation between money and power. We talked about why we all put private foundations at the top of the food chain and discovered the main reason is because there is a sense that foundations are the most autonomous and untouchable (except in rare instances of fraud such as the Bernie Madoff scandal) and “too big to fail” when compared with the relative vulnerability of non-profits. For example, if a non-profit, that a foundation previously funded in a certain program area, goes under the foundation is most often easily able to search and find another non-profit service provider to fill that gap. Life goes on as normal for most foundations while many non-profits come and go.
Another important part of our discussion involved defining and challenging our own notions and ideas about power by focusing on the 3 I’s – Individual, Institution, and Interpersonal. It is important to understand the dynamics of each player and their role across multiple systems and networks, recognizing that at any one time, there may be conflicting goals, values, language, and ways of working. It was a chance for many of us to reflect on our personal leadership styles, our relationships with our managers, and the ways in which we interact with people in positions of authority inside and outside of work. We engaged in valuable peer-to-peer learning by troubleshooting difficult situations that arise in our work lives and shared best practices and tips about how to deal with common challenges where power dynamics are involved.
An unexpected but welcome interruption from Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s CEO, Dr. Emmett Carson, generated even more discussion. Having authored more than 100 published works on philanthropy, Emmett has devoted almost his entire career to philanthropy and to being a catalyst for social change. He sat in and listened to our workshop for a while before we invited him to speak and share advice with the group. He emphasized the importance of acknowledging that people and institutions do have power in certain situations. For example, whether you are a CEO, board member, community foundation, manager, parent, etc., you have the power and ability to definitively say “yes” or “no” in certain situations. He suggested that when you do find yourself in a situation where you have the upper hand for whatever reason “own your power and be aware of it, and above all, make sure people feel like they are heard and respected.” His advice to a foundation or grantmaking institution was to “make sure that where you are focusing your power and influence is consistent with your mission, that you are transparent in your decision making, and that you do what you say you are going to do.” One of his closing challenges was for us all to ask ourselves how we can best exercise the positions of influence in which we find ourselves in a transparent and meaningful way that maximizes the potential for positive social impact.
While nothing I learned during the workshop was new or necessarily earth shattering, it was such a great opportunity to reflect on my position in philanthropy and the work of RSF. I kept thinking of RSF not as a “powerful” organization per se, but an organization positioned to make a deep and broad impact on the fields of philanthropy and finance. RSF is better described as “impactful” because of our broad and growing client base, the community we have created around shared values and interests, and the innovative ways we embody our mission through the products and programs we offer.
Two examples of the unique ways we at RSF seek to create impact are our Shared Gifting and Social Investment Fund programs. In both instances, we studied the traditional power dynamics involved in both the grantee/grantmaker and borrower/investor relationships and sought to experiment and shake things up. In Shared Gifting, we give the grantees complete authority and power to say “yes” or “no” to one another, and in our Social Investment Fund, we bring investors and borrowers together to talk about and decide the appropriate rates of interest during our quarterly pricing meetings. Talk about turning traditional power dynamics upside down! I am inspired because I feel that as our number of investors, borrowers, and grantees grows, the potential for greater, collective influence in partnership and collaboration with our client community will grow as well, creating a dynamic recipe for powerful and systemic impact.
Catherine Covington is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance.