glass roof

Shifting power, changing lives

By Fatima Asif 19 July 2019 5 minute read

The dramatic exit of novelist Ahdaf Soueif from the board of the British Museum, a decision widely reported in the press as being prompted by BP’s continued sponsorship of special exhibits, has fuelled already burning questions of where money comes from, the power funders wield, and how charities should react.

We’ve been hosting a three-part seminar series on power dynamics between funders and charities, which will culminate in a panel debate at our upcoming NPC Ignites Conference. Power imbalances matter because they muffle the voices of people whose contribution could be critical to maximising impact. Our latest roundtable, Building Power, explored how funders can boost the capacity of charities and communities advocating for change.

Global movements like #shiftthepower and #redefinephilanthropy are gaining pace. Charities and funders of all sizes are reflecting on how those with power can voluntarily share it with those without, and how it can be in their interest to do so. But are these conversations enough to attract funders who shy away from sharing power, or even from talking about it?

For our third and final power dynamics roundtable before Ignites, we brought together a cross-section of funders and charities to get fresh perspectives on what it takes to build power in philanthropy and civil society. You can read our earlier blogs to catch up on how funders can recognise their power and how to wield it well.

Our two speakers, Ailbhe McNabola, Head of Research and Policy at Power to Change, and James Lee, a consultant for multiple funders, shared their experiences and motivations on building power in communities and civil society.


How can you build power in others? And what does this mean for your own?

Funders hold different types of power, some inherent and visible (wealth, status, privilege, authority) and some acquired and perhaps invisible (independence, knowledge and access to stakeholders). Building power in others doesn’t necessarily equate to relinquishing all of one’s own power; it’s more nuanced than that. Fundamentally it’s about funders laying foundations for grantees to succeed, and not repeating biases.

Our speakers focussed on different aspects of how funders should build power in the charities and communities they support. Ailbhe spoke about championing her grantees and building capacity as a way of building power. Meanwhile, James emphasised challenging the status quo and the relationship between people, power and systems as a way of building power among marginalised groups.

Ailbhe’s position is eminently practical. Power to Change was established as a ten-year initiative, which puts Ailbhe and her team under inherent time pressure, so focusing on the practical aspects is pivotal. It was great to be able to discuss this in more detail.

Many practical solutions were put forward by seminar participants. Here are five top tips from the conversation to take away:

  1. Empower ‘collective control’ and flexible funding practices—for example, let beneficiaries decide ideas and design what they want to do, provide core funding, and allow space for people to come together
  2. Build capacity—such as providing resources, networking and training opportunities for civil society groups
  3. Find ways to be community-led—for example, devolve money to communities, become a less ‘dominant’ funder, and put people with lived experience or place-based knowledge in the lead
  4. Broker peer networks and pay for people’s time—this can help people to learn from others with knowledge and expertise and empower communities to self-advocate
  5. Hold funders accountable—such as through governance structures, transparency, and ensuring ethics of endowments

Some of these strategies require significant upfront investment, which can be difficult to achieve given the constraints our sector faces.

James spoke more of underlying systematic challenges which can be confronted by building power. Here are three approaches discussed on how to do so:

  1. Challenge the system and question where power has come from—such as looking at the role of the government, the drivers behind austerity, flaws in capitalism, who holds the codes of power and why
  2. Provoke deeper conversations with corporations and philanthropists—such as questioning the ethics of corporate social responsibility initiatives and how companies made their money
  3. Look at what it means to relinquish power—are trustees and philanthropists prepared to do this?

We need to be bolder in speaking truth to power

Our conversations indicated that power imbalances are self-perpetuating. Those with power can be more vocal than those without, which makes them more able to shape the narrative. Perhaps a radical recalibration is needed before people can be bolder in speaking truth to power.

There are many aspects to consider though. We would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that sharing power creates risk, or to say that money from unethical sources can’t ever be used for good. However, this shouldn’t stop charities from speaking out. Risks can be managed, and when charities realise their fiduciary duty, perhaps funders will be persuaded to align their income sources with the causes they support.

Most of our seminar participants across this series have agreed that power is skewed. It’s been encouraging to see participants’ appetite to be bolder and to catalyse long-term solutions instead of temporary fixes. To achieve behavioural change in the sector and wider civil society, we all need to keep up the effort to be bolder, to question our own privilege and ask to ourselves: what are we prepared to give up?

Continue the conversation on building, sharing and wielding power at NPC Ignites. Join the leading voices in charity as we explore the big themes impacting the sector.


Explore more