A reminder about power dynamics, because we keep forgetting

[A brown dog, starting at a little yellow duckling that’s standing on a wooden plant. The dog’s nose is touching the duckling’s beak. Image by WFranz on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, real quick before we focus on this week’s topic, for the past few months, Crappy Funding Practices has been calling out the eye-popping shenanigans we’ve encountered. Such as the funder that requires grantees to submit a notarized report every 60 days! (Hats off to you, Garneau-Nicon Family Foundation; that’s a breathtakingly new level of insipidness). Here’s a great article on the movement by our colleague Dawn Wolfe. The LinkedIn following is now at over 12,000 and growing rapidly; join in on the fun.

However, all of this takes work! Behind these posts on LinkedIn are teams of volunteers spending hours communicating with folks who nominate funders, vetting submissions, crafting the call-outs, engaging with social media, developing list of resources, planning meetings and organizing, etc. It’s a lot of work and right now all volunteer-run. We need more people involved. So, if you’re interested in helping out, please join a special meeting we’re hosting on May 14th at 10am Pacific Time, where we’ll update you on what’s been going on, and present the different options for you to plug into. Register here. See you then!

This week, I want us to revisit power dynamics, because it seems like many of us continue to forget it exists, as well as forget the lessons we may have learned in the past regarding it. I think overall, most people understand power dynamics. We understand, for instance, that a donor who gives a lot of money wields a lot of power, which they could use to lord over a nonprofit and shape its work. Or that an Executive Director or CEO has hierarchical power that makes it hard for staff to provide feedback or pushback against their ideas.

But power dynamics are everywhere, and we don’t always acknowledge and account for it, which is why we still have so many ridiculous practices in our sector. And also why so many of us are exhausted arguing with people about stuff that should be obvious by now.

A couple of examples come to mind. First, going back to CFP, a colleague took issue with the movement, posting, “I’m trying to understand how Crappy Funding Practice is effective for publicly shaming foundations, rather than having adult conversations with them about the issues.” A few people agreed. The rest of us sigh and point out that because of power imbalance between funders and grantseekers, these “adult conversations” often cannot take place, or are not effective even if they do happen. People cannot be honest when there is the possibility of their being punished for telling funders their grant processes are destructive, archaic, and nonsensical.

Second example, our field’s continuation with the practice of nonprofits asking their staff to donate back to the org, insisting on a wacky and nonsensical “100% employee-giving” rate. I find this type of fundraising gross and unethical. And yet, many colleagues in our field still passionately defend it, an argument being “it’s optional, staff can always say no; no one is forcing them to donate.” This and other arguments neglect the inherent power dynamics that exist in this situation that makes this icky practice coercive and not optional at all, even if stated otherwise.

So, let’s remind ourselves to be more aware of power dynamics. Be on the lookout for it constantly, because, like hummus, it’s often present in every situation in our work, but usually not as delicious. Here are a few questions to help guide your analysis:

  • Who holds the power in the situation?
  • What is this power based on? Is it seniority, hierarchy, race, gender, age, class, etc., or some combination of factors?  
  • What are obvious ways it manifests?
  • What are subtler ways it manifests that we may not be thinking about?  
  • What are the consequences of defying the power holder?
  • How are marginalized people affected by these dynamics?
  • Are there mechanisms already in place to balance out these power dynamics?
  • What can we do to mitigate the dynamics?
  • Can mitigation be enough to neutralize the potential harm of the dynamics?

The question of how marginalized people are affected is particularly important, as it touches on equity, which is another thing that many of us think we understand and yet keep forgetting to apply in our everyday practices. In situations where power dynamics are present, it is usually people of color, women, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, and others of marginalized identities that are most negatively affected.

In the examples above, the effects of the power dynamics are not equally distributed. Funders are mostly white, so they tend to have more rapport with white nonprofit leaders. This means that the “adult conversations” are more probable in taking place and more likely to lead to positive outcomes if the person initiating these conversations are white. People of color who try to give honest feedback will more likely face harsher consequences.

The same goes for asking staff to donate. The people most affected will be lower-paid staff, and those across the board are disproportionately people of color. If you’re the CEO, the Development Director, or other higher-positioned staff, you’re usually better paid and more likely to be white, so donating back a portion of your earnings probably won’t negatively affect you nearly as much as it would for lower-paid and lower-positioned staff, who tend to be POC.

Power dynamics are ever-present: Within boards, in our hiring practices, with our donors and funders, among staff, even between organizations. Let’s all try to be more aware of it, especially its interaction with equity. And especially if you’re the one holding power: funders, donors, board members, senior staff, etc. It doesn’t matter how nice and kind you may be, the power dynamics are still present and need to be accounted for.