Sharing Power: Parallels between Philanthropy and Government

John, Katie, and Brian recently attended three sessions from the Economic Mobile Pathways (EMPath): Disrupting the Poverty Cycle Conference: a Panel on Trust-Based Philanthropy, Flipping the Script: An Oral Narrative Workshop, and a Fireside Chat with Vu Le and Shena Ashley. In this article, we aim to lift up our learnings from the conference’s line up of talented practitioners on working on frontlines to spur economic mobility and strengthen legitimacy.

We attended three sessions of the EMPath Conference to learn from expert practitioners about giving agency and sharing stories within the poverty disruption space. Our team drew parallels between the lessons learned from the diverse range of speakers we heard across academic, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. 

Based on our learnings, we see a direct link between best practices for disrupting poverty and enabling government legitimacy. Given the government is a hugely influential actor when it comes to disrupting the poverty cycle, we share three lessons from the conference that governments can apply:

  1. “Power aware” approaches are needed to address systemic power imbalances
  2. Giving agency to communities most impacted by problems leads to better impact and more trusting relationships
  3. Telling historically accurate stories is a powerful way to challenge dominant systems that privilege certain voices over others

We finish this piece with our own insights on what this means for the government.

“Power aware” approaches are needed to address systemic power imbalances

In their fireside chat, Vu Le, founder of nonprofitAF, and Shena Ashley, a Vice President at the Urban Institute, criticized the unhealthy power dynamics in philanthropy. Vu summarized the racial injustice inherent in this uneven power distribution: “It is exhausting for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to be in philanthropy because it requires outreach to people who have perpetuated unequal systems and white saviorism.”

The exhaustion Vu describes is not unique to philanthropy. Both philanthropy and governments have remained complicit as wealth and decision-making power increasingly concentrate in the hands of a few – a few who are overwhelmingly white and male. For example, Vu noted the rise of donor-advised funds as one way the wealthy are receiving tax benefits  without any regulation or requirements from the government on where, when, or how their investments are made. 

The trust-based philanthropy movement offers a promising alternative: trust communities and grantees, those closest to the problems being addressed, to make decisions. Organizations like the North Star Fund and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation demonstrate it is possible to take a ‘power aware’ approach that treats communities and nonprofits as the ‘experts’, rather than those with the financial resources to donate.

It is exhausting for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to be in philanthropy because it requires outreach to people who have perpetuated unequal systems and white saviorism.

Shaady Salehi, Director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, builds on what it means to take a ‘power aware’ approach: “Being ‘power-aware’ isn’t solely about helping nonprofits and communities, it is about acknowledging that social impact can only happen if we trust and honor the leadership of those on the front lines. So there is a bigger picture win for everyone when we approach this work in a relational, trust-based way.” She describes how, for this to work well, funders must flip traditional notions of accountability on their heads, “Funders should consider themselves accountable to communities and grantees, as opposed to grantees being accountable to metrics they didn’t help set. ”  

This different way of thinking about measurement and accountability has parallels to Measurement for Learning our team has explored with local governments. Further, we believe the values from the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, such as leading with trust, centering relationships, working for systemic equity, and redistributing power, are highly relevant for governments too.

Giving agency to communities most impacted by problems leads to better impact and more trusting relationships

Aligned with the trust-based philanthropy movement, one specific technique has particular promise when it comes to how to share power: participatory grantmaking. As participatory grantmaking has been growing to transform engagement with local communities in philanthropy, we have seen a similar movement in government, focusing on inclusionary approaches.

Participatory grantmaking is an approach that democratizes philanthropy, disrupts power dynamics, and shifts power in grantmaking decisions from foundation staff to the people most affected by the issues. It gives agency to grantees and works towards dismantling entrenched hierarchies in philanthropy. 

For example, MacArthur Foundation decided to include local Chicago residents on a participatory grantmaking panel to review applications to the Foundation’s Culture, Equity, and the Arts program. This diverse group of Chicagoans with different lived experiences, community development involvements, and diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds recommended ten applications, which were all approved by MacArthur’s President and Board.

Similarly, a technique to introduce more participatory approaches to government is participatory budgeting. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) empowers individuals to be involved in the expenditure of public funds, which deepens democracy, increases civic engagement, and distributes resources equitably with community-led recommendations. As of today, PBP has empowered over 400,000 people to make decisions on $300 million dollars in public funding. A few years ago In Oakland, California, for example, over 1,200 residents voted on community-created funding priorities for almost $800,000 in community development block grants. These projects included affordable housing priorities and health-related initiatives.

Participatory grantmaking and participatory budgeting both focus on dismantling systems of power. By including communities in the decision-making process, not only will government and philanthropy be more transparent, but community issues will be addressed in accordance with local residents’ self-expressed needs. Our research demonstrates that governments that do this well have stronger relationships, greater impact, and more legitimacy. As philanthropy and government grow this space, we are energized by the potential to facilitate collaborative, learning networks across sectors.

Telling historically accurate stories is a powerful way to challenge dominant systems that privilege certain voices over others

A critical way we can better learn from each other is storytelling that centers the voices of communities most impacted by issues. During the oral narrative workshop, Tom Mould, a Professor at Butler University, emphasized the power of stories and their ability to shape our values, and consequently, our policies. Tom noted that too often the stories we are exposed to are driven by a dominant perspective, without the perspectives of historically marginalized people. This underrepresentation is akin to erasure, and those that intentionally or unintentionally provide inaccurate information can reinscribe harmful stereotypes. 

Tom reinforced the importance of telling stories that are accurate and precise, in order to counter partial or intentionally inaccurate narratives. When we identify problematic narratives, it is important to publicly acknowledge the inaccuracies and intentionally center the voices of BIPOC and low-income communities. Take the US’s founding story for example. Instead of perpetuating a harmful myth of untouched wilderness absence of people, actively acknowledging the US’s history of colonization and genocide, and centering the voices of Indigenous people in storytelling is a more accurate, powerful, and useful way of describing the founding of the US. 

When we identify problematic narratives, it is important to publicly acknowledge the inaccuracies and intentionally center the voices of BIPOC and low-income communities.

The best way to center these perspectives is offering your platform – whether it be an academic journal, a blog, or a government’s communications team – for people who philanthropy and government have marginalized and oppressed. At CPI, we consider it our responsibility to prioritize these voices in our content, programs, and strategy more broadly. 

At the heart of our approach is relationships, a lesson we feel is applicable across sectors. Dr. Kim TallBear, an Associate Professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota, described decolonizing stories as a “relationship-building process… sharing of knowledge, not simply data gathering.”

What next? How government and philanthropy can work together

While the public and social sector can learn a lot from each other, each actor brings unique perspectives and capabilities. We see huge promise in the sectors working together to share power with communities, and based on our learnings, offer the following recommendations for enabling fruitful collaboration across sectors:

  • Acknowledge unique histories: While philanthropy and government both have a history of power imbalance, the histories look very different across sectors and across individual organizations within those sectors. As a starting point, actors should understand their unique role in contributing to systemic racism and be open about how they are working to change this with potential partners.
  • Provide resources and mitigate risk: Communities hold philanthropies and governments accountable in very different ways, which means that philanthropies often have a much higher tolerance for risk. While both actors can work with residents to generate innovative ideas, philanthropies may be better placed to provide the multi-year, unrestricted funding needed to bring them to life. 
  • Encourage inclusive policy change: Government has the power to enact policies that can contribute to the systemic change both actors aim to drive, across a wide range of policy areas (e.g., housing, employment, public health) and at all levels (e.g., federal, state, local). The more government and philanthropy can view policy creation as an open, collaborative space that residents can drive, the better. 

By uplifting and valuing others’ talents and skills,  people see themselves as valued team members, thereby laying the groundwork for an environment where everyone’s voices are heard.