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Shifting The Power Dynamics of Philanthropy

Edgar Villanueva on the panel

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

Philanthropy in and of itself is neither the solution nor the problem in international development. Rather, it is how we currently understand, utilize and govern philanthropy that contributes significantly to its successes and failures.

Panelist and author of Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva, suggests that philanthropy is in a moment of reckoning. I hope he is right. The history of colonization and power dynamics inherent in today’s philanthropic system need to be recognized, grappled with and frankly, overturned.

Most of us are now familiar with stories of failed aid, and critiques of the Western philanthropic system in which wealthy or otherwise privileged people in one place make decisions about funding, development, and projects for people or organizations in a completely different place, of which they know little. The gap is in having no substantial understanding or experience with the context. “Failed aid” isn’t only applicable to the relationship between developed and developing countries – the disconnect could be continents away, or mere minutes away. Rodney Foxworth, Executive Director of BALLE, referenced the median net worth of a black American household in Boston, which is $8, compared to $247,500 for a white household. Read that again. $8. Compared to a quarter of a million dollars.

Foxworth proposes that we need to shift capital to “advance the economic interests of communities who have been excluded from, extracted from, and marginalized for centuries.”

There is a growing recognition that this kind of extreme disparity and inequality is neither logical nor just, and that it drastically fails the communities and people on the negative side of the power and wealth balance. But how can those with power begin to shift it?

Some tangible actions to rebalance power and capital seem straightforward: creating more diverse boards and teams, putting more decision making into the hands of the people who are living with the problems directly or working on the frontlines, and spending more time listening and co-designing solutions that meet the self-expressed needs of the people themselves. These principles are often at the heart of how social enterprises and non-profits seek to do their work, and yet even with these as stated goals, we often fall short as well. It is easy to skip over the time and effort that true inclusion require; it is convenient to sacrifice deep understanding for perceived efficiency and output.

Achieving a significant shift of capital, or de-colonizing wealth, requires first understanding why and how power dynamics of wealth are where they are to begin with, and admitting the injustice of how the system was built and is still maintained. More difficult, of course, is actually changing, letting go of power, and building new systems on foundations of trust. It seems clear that someone living with or working directly with a problem day in and day out will have better insight and expertise than someone who has never experienced it, and yet we often ignore or overlook this expertise in favor of those who hold money and therefore decision-making power, or even in favor of our own ideas and self-acclaimed expertise.

Trusting in other’s direct expertise, and investing in that expertise, will be key in shifting the power dynamics of philanthropy. Ultimately though, how this plays out will rely heavily on who has a seat at the tables of philanthropic and stakeholder powers. It is the responsibility of everyone in the impact and development space to create a more diverse and representative table.

To top it off, we should probably all read Villaneuva’s Decolonizing Wealth – I’ve already ordered mine!

About the Author

Julie Greene

Julie Greene is passionate about tackling issues of social injustice, with a focus on educational and economic inclusion for women. Julie has come to believe that business is one of the best tools for achieving social impact and sustainable change, and is co-founder of The Women’s Bakery, a social enterprise that trains and employs women in East Africa. 

Photo source: Skoll Foundation