“The most common way people give up their power is by
thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker
One of the great ironies of philanthropy, a field with tremendous positional power, is that so many people working within it are convinced that they have no power at all.
It is practically tradition for new people coming into philanthropy to be given a litany of reasons — usually by well-meaning colleagues — why power is beyond their grasp; particularly the power to advance racial and gender equity or funding for grassroots organizing.
Here are the top three:
1) You can’t organize in philanthropy (or, as I like to call this, the “Gravity doesn’t apply to people who work in philanthropy” argument): While workers, students, immigrants and practically anyone else on the planet can organize and use their collective power to effect change, people working in philanthropy cannot because the sector is governed by a different set of rules and has no real levers of accountability. Therefore, none of the organizing tactics that work in every other sector — including mapping where power sits and who influences those who wield it — will work in the funding world.
2) You are too low on the food chain to make change (or, the “who do you think you are?” argument): Hierarchies are impenetrable and if only you were higher up, you might be able to influence change. If you are a Program Associate you might have power once you are a Program Officer. But then again if you are a Program Officer you might only have power once you are a Director. But wait, if you are a Director you can’t expect much power until you are an Executive. And if you are an Executive you’re SO close! but not there yet — maybe where you’re a donor or trustee. And if you are a donor or trustee, you’ll have power for sure if you are a cis white male over 65…but if you are not, no worries girlfriend! There’s always next lifetime!
3) Conversations about race and gender alienate donors & get you fired (or, the “why rock the boat? you’ll only tip it over!” argument): It’s better to either abandon racial and gender justice grantmaking strategies or disguise them behind more neutral language like “funding state-level work,” than to risk your job. Avoid awkward or uncomfortable conversations at all costs!
To be fair, there are some kernels of truth in these: it is hard to organize in philanthropy, hierarchies can be really tough, and some donors do react poorly to tough conversations. However, I have not found these statements, taken whole, to be true.
They are, quite simply, myths that have been told and retold until they seemed like facts. The program team members at Groundswell Fund — all of us women of color who came into philanthropy directly from labor or community organizing — have shattered all three.
Last year, the Groundswell team talked in-person to three thousand individual donors and foundation staff people about expanding their giving to reproductive justice, grassroots organizing and racial and gender justice. Did some walk away? Absolutely! Most out of fear that increasing the share of resources they are moving to women and people of color would take something away from, rather than add value to, the male and/or white-led work they had funded for years. But far more donors leaned in to learn more, and many took action.