Funders: Responsibly Use Your Power for the Common Good

I have long believed that funders – namely, foundations – often don’t execute their influence as much as they should. So I was really interested to read Andy Carroll’s article, “Are You Using Your Power, or Leaving It on the Table?

Carroll argues that it’s taboo to talk about power – which is often associated with money. But he asks what would happen if more funders use their power for good. He goes on to give 5 different descriptions of what power looks like in action, and this is where I found myself disappointed. The examples that Carroll offers – such as inquiring why checks from local government agencies to grantees were delayed; and meeting with a state legislator to brief him on the impact of state budget cuts – appear to be what funders should be doing anyway. Funders are conveners and connectors, and often have a fuller and broader understanding of the landscape than those of us who are doing the field work, day in and day out. Thus, wouldn’t it make sense for the funder to take action when there’s a problem that they can easily help resolve?

Yet, at the same time, I understand why funders would be reluctant to wield their power. Funders are often accused of asking too much from their grantees, of forcing new initiatives (such as collective impact models), and swaying the conversation too much.

So what do we do about it? I liked Carroll’s suggestion: “Recognize that power is always at work.” There is a power dynamic that exists between funders and their grantees. The first thing that a funder can do is to acknowledge that dynamic, and respectfully participate when decisions are made. The other stakeholders might disagree with the funder, so it’s important for the funder to know that it is not “their way or the highway.” The funder should create a safe space in which the stakeholders and/or grantees can feel comfortable gently “pushing back” on the funder, should they decide to go in a different direction. Not only does everyone have to agree to dance well together, they should also acknowledge that there is a dance taking place!

The voices of foundation representatives carry great weight. Use them – but use them wisely, and use them for the good of the organization.

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