Philanthropy’s “New Power” Challenges

I don’t recall ever reading a nonfiction book as quickly as I’ve just read Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms’s new book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World — and How to Make It Work for You. It helps that Phil Buchanan, CEP’s president, reviewed the book recently in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and has recommended it highly to my colleagues and me. Timms also spoke on this topic at CEP’s 2015 conference in San Francisco, back when some of the main ideas in the book were outlined in this article in the Harvard Business Review.

In Heimans and Timms’s telling, “new power” dynamics are providing new methods of participation and agency for people, organizations, and causes that we are increasingly seeing around us. While “old power” values are often formal and prize expertise, confidentiality, professionalism, and pedigree, new power values prize decentralized decision-making, organic multiplication, the wisdom of crowds, radical transparency, and a bootstrap mentality.

Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume. New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency).

Despite having read the HBR article and being familiar with some of the stories the authors tell, I admit I was still surprised and truly challenged by the book. It is unusually rich with examples drawn from the nonprofit sector (including causes and groups as diverse as #MeToo, a church in Colorado, #GivingTuesday, Invisible Children, Ai-Jen Poo, #BlackLivesMatter, and others), and thus imparts many big questions for our sector on new power’s implications for philanthropy.

A few of the stories underscore that the default mindsets in philanthropy are much more old power than we’d like to admit. To be clear, though, the authors do not hold up new power as an inevitable or unalloyed good. The image in my mind is like that of fire — incredibly powerful and useful when rightly used, and also a lethal force that can run amok with devastating consequences.

Upon reflection, I see a few challenges that this ascendant phenomenon of new power presents for the philanthropic sector. 

Donor intent, reputational risk, and control

There are inherent tensions between philanthropy embracing new power in its decision-making and strategies, particularly when it comes to donor intent, reputational risk, and control. Funders are often understandably concerned with their privacy, founding principles, and also efforts at tracking their own contributions towards their goals. But new power values often run counter to these priorities.

Some of the most memorable stories in the book are when causes or ideas that spread and evolved rapidly didn’t turn out the way their originators had hoped. In some cases, it succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. One example that sticks out is Timms’s key decision to not brand #GivingTuesday with his organization’s (92nd Street Y) logo, but instead to allow others to co-opt the brand however they wished. This decision ended up being key in the movement’s global success.

Other stories, such as the massive user revolt on Reddit in 2015, are cautionary tales on what happens when a cause or brand is too tightly controlled. It seems there are tremendous risks and rewards at stake depending on how an individual or organization responds to new power trends all around us.

Transparency

New power’s high need for radical transparency is also a challenge for philanthropy. CEP’s research report, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency, finds that foundation leaders have differing perspectives on the relationship between transparency and effectiveness. As if speaking to this very subject, Heiman and Timms write:

The big clash here is between the “need to know” mindset, which instinctively keeps information away from the public for its own protection, and a rising “right to know expectation,” where new power thinkers demand openness from institutions as a default. In the first case, experts and authority figures decide what filters information deserves; in the second the filters don’t exist.

The demand from various stakeholders and the public for increasing openness in philanthropy is undoubtedly growing in our current moment — and will likely only grow stronger.

Who gets credit?

Does it matter who gets the credit for the good that results from our philanthropic efforts? In philanthropy it too often seems to matter a great deal, despite the fact that many donors and foundations are working toward similar goals and collaborate on their giving all the time (not to mention that causation is hard to prove).

The very definition of new power is that the crowd, and not one person or institution, often gets most of the credit. This means, as former Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund Vice President of Program Sylvia Yee said, also at CEP’s 2015 conference, “leaving big egos behind” will be critical if philanthropy is to truly embrace new power.

Is philanthropy ready for new power?

Heimans and Timms are clear that new power isn’t for everyone or every organization. For instance, if the answer to any of the following questions is “no,” the authors recommend sticking with old power:

Do you need the involvement of the crowd to get a better outcome? Does the crowd need you?

Do you have enough legitimacy with the people you’re trying to engage so that you’re not ignored or crowd-jacked?

Are you willing to cede some control to the crowd within parameters you set, and accept outcomes that are unexpected or suboptimal?

Are you prepared and able to sustain the engagement of the crowd and feed their agency over the longer term?

These questions are challenging to institutional philanthropy’s inherent characteristics. Much of our sector is structured around old power dynamics, even as many in our field are seeking to make societal change in a new power way.  An overly simplistic takeaway from the book would be that we need to embrace all that is viral and crowd-based; on the contrary, the authors say that not all viral efforts are worthy (ISIS is a prime example). And even with viral movements that are positive, it’s important to not lose sight of philanthropy’s key strength in its role as “patient capital” — its ability to work on issues and with communities that are often not in the spotlight, but are nonetheless vital to the common good.

There is also the danger of what the authors call “WeWashing,” citing a term coined by a friend of theirs that refers to the danger of “using the language of the crowd without having any meaningful interest in engaging with it.” At CEP, our hope is that funders will listen to and engage attentively with their grantees, staff, and other stakeholders, because it’s vital for effectiveness.

Increasingly, it’s also vital in our new power world.

Grace Nicolette is vice president, programming and external relations, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @GraceNicolette.

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