By Calum Carmichael.

Family is perhaps the most familiar and complicated setting in which we all experience power and power relationships. I marvel at people who parent well, who somehow know when to dominate their children (change their behaviour by either imposing, preventing or persuading them of something) versus when to empower them (encourage or require their children to use their own smarts and make their own decisions).

From my vantage point, parenting is a challenge and balancing act. But being a child, whether adult or not, is also a challenge. Children have their own assets and sources of influence – say, technical know-how, ingenuity, time, networks. When and how should they dominate their parents, either by insisting upon a given course of action they see as wise, or by ruling out or cajoling them from something they see as unnecessary or misguided? And when and how should they empower them, respecting their abilities to decide and abiding by their decisions despite reservations?

When to dominate and when to shift power?

Just as the interdependent power relations in families are complicated and their consequences far-reaching, so are the power relations in philanthropy – particularly those between grantors and grantees. When, how and why should grantors dominate their grantees and the communities they serve? And when should grantors empower them – sharing and shifting the power to decide on what projects should be undertaken, how to design and implement, how to deploy the funds and other resources, or how to evaluate and report the outcomes?

Joseph J. Smith and Rebecca Darwent

Joseph J. Smith and Rebecca Darwent are two of the co-founders of the Foundation for Black Communities, which aims to be the first philanthropic organization dedicated to Black people in Canada. Photo by René Johnston.

Good in itself

Some see the sharing and shifting of power as good in and of itself, whether by countering the effects of colonization, giving communities and their organizations greater control over their own futures, or by providing grantors who seek to promote social justice with a way to dismantle the inequalities built into their own funding regimen.

Shifting power is necessary

For others, shifting power is a necessity – brought about by particular projects being complex, full of uncertainties and the need for ongoing course correction. Such projects defy upfront planning and linear, top-down direction. They require constant feed-back that’s informed by on-the-ground knowledge. They require grantees to be partners.

The long-term effects will outlive the short-term intervention

Still for others, the shifting of power offers a more effective strategy for realizing transformative change. Turning ‘beneficiaries’ into, not project partners, but ‘co-investors’ could increase the likelihood of projects having effects that far outlive the initial interventions. Grantors should therefore provide opportunities and incentives for grantees and their communities to apply their own assets of money, skills, knowledge and networks, to foster local leadership, strengthen local capacity and cultivate local buy-in.

The “Shifting Power in Philanthropy” series

Although attracting greater attention, the sharing and shifting of power is neither easy nor straightforward. It often butts up against traditional views of donors’ and grantors’ prerogatives. It challenges conventional understandings of managerial responsibility and patterns of accountability. It complicates established forms of Board oversight. It requires that lip service turns into organizational commitment, and that such commitment turns into actual practice.

Recognizing the need for and complications of shifting power within philanthropy, PANL Perspectives presents a multi-part series featuring the firsthand experiences of people who have seen that need and experienced those complications – both nationally and internationally. We hope you’ll read this series and join us in shifting the conversation about shifting power.

Calum Carmichael is an associate professor in Carleton’s MPNL program and an editor of PANL Perspectives.

Click for the Next Story in the Power Series: Thousand Currents, Power & Privilege

Thursday, October 1, 2020 in
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