Power Dynamics in the Philanthropic Sector

Power dynamics

Are there power dynamics in the philanthropic sector?  There has long been perceived a kind of class warfare between foundations who have the money, and nonprofits who beg for the money.  This is summed up by one of my favorite quotes from Arthur T. Himmelman, one of my favorite constructive critics.  It goes, “Ah, philanthropy, it’s what allows a nonprofit to stand on its own two knees.”  There is a painful truth to this, acknowledged by both sides.

But the problem lies only partly with the dollar disparity.  There’s also the tendency to think in Us and Them terms, the Powerful and the Powerless, which happens at all levels up and down the philanthropic food chain.

There clearly are power dynamics in the philanthropic sector.  I think that nonprofits and foundations are fundamentally allied, but that thinking of each other in Us and Them terms is dysfunctional and counterproductive to all.   Philanthropy is the work of both foundations and nonprofits – they often have similar missions and a focus on benefiting the same people.  Each needs the other, and too much is made of their differences and not enough of their similarities.

“But the foundations have the money,” I’m told, “and so there’s a power struggle, a class struggle, between the haves and have-nots.”  And there’s some truth to it, but… Plenty of nonprofits are bigger than foundations.  Plenty of nonprofits have more clout than foundations.  Ineffectiveness and struggles to live up to the mission happens throughout the sector, without regard to “who has more money.”  Disparities, abuse, and neglect happen throughout the sector.   I wouldn’t say that nonprofits act any more nobly or ignobly than foundations.

Partnership and collaboration is what’s needed throughout the sector, not displays of wealth and power and the hubris that goes with it.  What’s in short supply is r-e-s-p-e-c-t for the capabilities of potential partners, and respect for the opportunity of increasing the capabilities of others.  Respect is essential for partnerships, and partnerships are essential for philanthropic effectiveness in taking on large social issues.  My colleague Arthur Himmelman has contributed much to the good design of good collaboration.

How you view your own power depends on your position. When you’re on your knees, you naturally feel inferior, and when someone in front of you is on their knees, you naturally feel superior.  So for starters, get off your knees.  And if you’ve never been on your knees, try it out to see what it’s like.

A helpful fact is that each philanthropic organization, whether nonprofit or foundation, gets its money from somewhere else.  More and more philanthropic organizations are in fact intermediaries, in function if not in name, receiving philanthropic assets (time, talent, and treasure) and distributing philanthropic assets elsewhere –also time, talent, and treasure but hopefully transformed in ways that help achieve a mission.  One can imagine the staffs of the Conquistador Foundation and the Anonymous Peoples Action Alliance as both givers and recipients, both recipients and givers, both makers and takers.  In other words, the grantmaker/grantseeker distinction is a less and less apt description of philanthropic entities these days. The philanthropic food chain is a long and twisted one with complex role differentiations. We all be Us, and we all be Them.

But a big fly in the can-we-all-just-get-along ointment is the ways too many traditional foundations are accountable to and governed by traditional interests, more than non-traditional nonprofits are. This greatly reduces the flow of resources and hobbles the work of those parts of the philanthropic sector that work for a non-traditional definition of effectiveness, one that promotes progress against a more equitable mission.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project

June 17, 2011 / lightly revised November 9, 2020 / revised again April 1, 2022.