Let's Get Explicit About Power

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Let's Get Explicit About Power
By: Kim Walker, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Arabella Advisors. This piece was originally published by Arabella Advisors and has been repurposed for Philanthropy New York.

As DEI discussions increase in philanthropy, there remains one area where discussion seems to be lagging behind: power. Power is uncomfortable to discuss and the dynamics of who have power feel hard to change. However, shifting power is often what creates the kind of transformational, systems-level change that funders and their partners are seeking. Additionally, creating change outside of the organization is often only possible when there is change within. Thus, I encourage organizations in the sector to consider ways to practice shifting power dynamics internally so that they are better, more effective partners to their communities.

I offer four types of power that may be manifesting in your organization: resources, structures and processes, identity and relationships, and framing and communication. Resource power is perhaps the most familiar to us: money is resource power, but so are expertise, relationships, and lived experience. The use of resources to achieve desired results is essentially the basis of philanthropy, but have you done an internal scan of how resource power is used internally? Who within your organization has access to different assets? Who is naturally perceived as someone who should be listened to (and therefore has the power of legitimacy)? 

Structures and processes also create power. From the macro level of who sets up decisionmaking structures and procedures to the more micro level of who sets the agenda for meetings (and thus decides what is worth discussing), there are choices everywhere that are made to give more power to certain people. Power rests in not just who sets up structures and processes and who participates in them, but in the unspoken norms that may exist that keep other actors silent. Are you intentionally working to encourage participation from your entry-level staff? From staff from marginalized groups?

Certain identities and relationships also hold power. Which identities are powerful is often tied to broader patterns around privilege and marginalization in our society. We are also more likely to form relationships with people we have things in common with, which may mean that the benefits that come from close relationships with others – like their sharing certain information with us or their additional support – may accrue to people who already enjoy power and resources. How can you break that cycle?

Finally, how we communicate and frame our experiences holds a great deal of power. How do we describe the problems we’re trying to solve? Think about the difference, for example, between 
•    There are too many people experiencing homelessness downtown.
•    There’s not enough affordable housing in the city center.
•    Too much of the housing being developed is luxury housing targeted toward younger residents.

Each of these problems frames leads to different solutions. This framing also intersects with the areas above – having structural power derived from hierarchy may give more senior staff more opportunities to use their voice and elevate whatever frame they perceive as the correct one.

Paying attention to power and the many ways it manifests internally will open opportunities to make different choices. You may see pathways to including input from different actors, sharing or surrendering some of the power you have with others, or more deeply interrogating your organization’s norms. Whatever happens next, this much is clear: power must continue to be part of our future conversations and actions.

Watch Kim Walker facilitate Why Aren't We More Explicit About Power, a PNY members-only workshop to help you identify ways that power may be manifesting in and affecting you and your work within your organization and when collaborating with internal and external partners.

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