We Can’t Force Philanthropy to Talk About Power Dynamics, Can We?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

We Can’t Force Philanthropy to Talk About Power Dynamics, Can We?

By Jen Bokoff, Director of GrantCraft, Foundation Center

As a sector, we embrace and use power every day, but we don’t talk about it. Why? Well, for one thing, the dynamics are challenging to discuss; power itself can never be eliminated. With increased awareness of power, however, conversations, relationships, and strategies can shift in surprising ways. Since power can be a touchy subject, I wanted to try to tackle it through my favorite device: humor.

When we launched the GrantCraft guide Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together earlier this year, every subsequent “101” session unanimously asked to dig in deeper to the power dynamics chapter. In a recent program hosted by Philanthropy New York (“Power Play – Slay the Elephant in the Room!” September 17), Anna Pond – my co-conspirator, GrantCraft guide author, talented facilitator and performing artist – and I improvised our way through some comedic interactions in a room of twenty grantmakers.

We played men at their kids’ soccer game, bartenders, and women who paint their nails at their desk. (Confession: I’ve done it.) Each of these characters doubled as someone in the social sector. There were no assigned roles, and no “real characters” represented in the scenes. It allowed people to step out of their “standard” office environments to instead focus conversation on analyzing how never-before-seen characters interact.

One workshop participant commented after a scene how interesting it was to see a grantee – one verbally “dressed” by another participant as a clown – who held power over the funder, which many in the room identified as something they had experienced, too. We were then able to talk about strategies for navigating that power, including ways to pivot conversation with a “yes, and” strategy, framing a site visit purposefully, and ways to validate the perspective of someone you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with.

As one participant noted, there were no men in attendance at the session, except our fearless moderator and master of ceremonies, George Suttles. How might that affect the conversation and improvisation that had taken place, she wondered aloud? Another participant, in debriefing a scene where there was a strong hierarchical dynamic between a long-time foundation trustee and a new program associate, noted that age often does create a power dynamic, but that each side of that dynamic can wield their end of power thoughtfully should they recognize it. Power, another participant concluded, doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but if unrecognized, puts up barriers to thoughtfully getting the work we want to get done, done.

We gambled by inviting participants to join the improvisation if they wanted. I was surprised, and delighted, that many did. Afterwards, they shared that improvisation – not having a specific script or plan for a scene, but acting as a character in a given context – was liberating, fun, and real. Even though the characters weren’t tied to real people, there is truth in comedy, and everything from the women who were our SHOWTIME subway artists to the woman at the bar who had consumed one too many is something that many in the room had experienced in some way, shape, or form before. I have always believed that with shared laughter, trust and rapport is built and with direct participatory engagement, skills are more readily learned, and so this was particularly exciting to see play out.

I facilitate and participate in many sessions in the philanthropy world, and this was by far one of the most fun and, I think, successful. But, it’s a challenging model and conversation to scale. Talking about power is an opt-in conversation – you can’t force it (or can you? Any foundations out there who make this a topic in onboarding?) – and the people who do opt in tend to be ones who already have a self awareness of power and want to talk about it. And, to then host the conversation in a safe space using tools of humor and facilitated conversation requires eager conversation hosts and careful messaging.

We welcome any and all thoughts on how to scale this conversation in the sector, but I also encourage you to think: how do you talk with colleagues about power? And, how might you use humor as a tool for talking more objectively about tough issues? Leave a comment, tweet @grantcraft, or email me at mailto:jen@foundationcenter.org.

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