Three ways in which funders can disperse power in philanthropy this year

Many of the conversations taking place within philanthropy at the moment centre around legitimacy, transparency, equity, diversity, inclusion…the list goes on. These topics skirt around what really needs to be addressed: the unbalanced power dynamics entrenched throughout the sector. This is why at SIX we are focus on decentralising power within philanthropy this year. For this to happen, funders will need to surrender some of their organisational and individual power, and we know that this has the possibility to be a painful process. Here are three ways in which we think funders need to address power in 2020: 

Making change from the inside out
Foundations should be interrogating how power works throughout their organisation, as well as how it influences relationships with grantees and communities. Governance structures of many foundations have not evolved as the organisation or the funding environment has. These systems should be adapted to reflect new ways of working and challenge current power structures. Some foundations have already made these changes, and moved funding decisions away from trustees and into the hands of those who know the ins and outs of the funding landscape and grantees – programme managers.

Similarly, some foundations are beginning to look at redistributing the power that comes with being a grant maker. New platforms like FundAction – initiated by Open Society Initiative for Europe, European Cultural Foundation, Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and Guerrilla Foundation – operate solely through this grantmaking method. The platform gives grants of up to €20,000 to initiatives that promote systemic change (‘renew’), focus on collaboration, exchange and capacity building (‘rethink’) or to respond to urgent actions (‘resist’). All funding decisions are made democratically by the platform’s activist members and overseen by a facilitation group.

While participatory grantmaking is no silver bullet for shifting power within the sector, it is one of many potential tools which can and should be experimented with by traditional foundations if they are committed to this shift.

Protecting democracy
While some funders declare their work to be entirely politically neutral, for others I’ve spoken with, to fund anything is to make a political decision. In 2020, the philanthropic sector should critically question the relationship between philanthropy and politics, and examine their own. Of course, it’s not an easy question. The ‘Stop Soros Law’ in Hungary shows just how murky the answers we find can be, and how fractious these conversations can become. But it’s important as we see the continued rise in populism across Europe and elsewhere, and authoritarian regimes crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech. In the pithy words of Soros himself, ‘the situation is quite grim’. Funders must examine their role in protecting democracy and the quashed rights of individuals in undemocratic environments.

Bridging the gap between technology and civil society
Without doubt, one way in which democracy is endangered is by digital threats. We’ve seen how digital platforms can spread misinformation, amplify hate speech and aid extremism. In the wake of these developments, which continue to evolve, the philanthropic sector needs to at least discuss their role in supporting civil society’s awareness of how digitalisation is threatening democracy and free speech. In 2020, this conversation must become a bigger part of sector gatherings, and should lead to the adoption of new strategies by foundations.

Alongside interrogating the role of funders in supporting democracy in the wake of digital threats, we also see the potential for the philanthropy sector to help create a ‘new social contract’ between technology companies and civil society. There is great wealth accumulated by big tech – both material and data – and vast power able to be wielded as a result of this. We just have to look at the tightrope currently being walked between Alphabet and civil society in Toronto, over plans for a Sidewalks Lab smart city development to see how fraught navigating this space can be. Is there a role for philanthropy in ensuring that communities are supported and given a voice during prospective projects like these? And should the sector be looking to find ways to help share the power that comes with control over data and technological innovation?

We recognise that these conversations have already been taking place in different forums, in the UK through organisations like Doteveryone and the work of Cassie Robinson in particular. By bringing those working on this already together – and including those yet to explore the topic – we hope to continue and develop the discussions and work already in motion with a global audience.

Throughout 2020, the SIX Funders Node ‘Year on Power’ will be exploring these issues and more by hosting events, virtual gatherings and retreats. We’ll be helping forge new intentional relationships between funders from around the world, and we’ll be sharing our learning in Alliance.

We don’t expect our year-long interrogation into the relationship between power and philanthropy to solve these issues. We’re hoping to push these conversations to the fore, and to invite new people into them to offer fresh perspectives and harness a drive for change. Sound interesting? We’d love to have you on board. Get in touch.

Sophie Monaghan-Coombs is Strategy and Development Manager at Social Innovation Exchange

This article was originally published on Alliance Magazine. To read the original click here.