Recently, I had the opportunity to present at the Upswell conference, hosted by Independent Sector and targeted toward philanthropy, nonprofit, and other change makers. My session focused on identifying and managing power in social change work, drawing upon a combination of my research on power dynamics in cross-sector partnerships (I’m currently a PhD candidate at Antioch University) and my experiences as a technical assistance provider and Associate Director at Arabella Advisors.
Power dynamics underlie broader discussions on key topics like systems change, equity, and justice, but we typically don’t like talking about power. It can feel awkward or unpleasant and reveal hard truths that may feel unsurmountable. However, research tells us that just talking about power can help empower us.(1) Whether we talk about it or not, it’s there – and increasing our awareness of how it shows up can make us more effective social change makers.
Based on my Upswell presentation, the remainder of this post identifies four of the ways power can show up in cross-sector and collaborative work and poses a variety of related questions for consideration. (If you have ideas to contribute or your own questions, I hope you’ll reach out using the link at the bottom of this page).
#1 – The Power in Resources
One of the most obvious ways power shows up is in resources. Of course, when we talk about resources in philanthropic and nonprofit circles, the first type that comes to mind is often money and the influence and authority attached to it. However, a famous framework by French and Raven(2) names five power-related resource types
- Expert: power derived from knowledge or skill
- Referent: power derived from a sense of identification others feel toward you
- Reward: power derived from an ability to reward others
- Coercive: power derived from fear of punishment by others
- Legitimate: power derived from a perceived inherent right to influence
Each of these can function as currency in social sector settings, and stakeholders should always examine which they have at their disposal. Legitimacy is a unique resource, as it’s something we may often give away without realizing it. Legitimacy is based on perception – who we think should have the right to influence outcomes. Beyond being aware of when we give legitimacy away and why we do, we should also question when we ourselves can choose to give away our own legitimacy. Should we have influence or the right to influence others? If not, how can we direct those looking to us for guidance elsewhere?
#2 – The Power in Structures
Structural power shows up in rules and regulations, grant agreements, policies, design of decision-making processes, etc. Structural power also includes the broader decision-making structures within our society (think of government institutions, for example).
One of the primary ways structural power works on a smaller scale is through the agenda setting process for meetings, whether organizational or collaborative. Structural power can be visible (Sam sets an agenda), hidden (Sam sets the agenda, but gets input from a hand-picked set of people), or invisible (we assume that agendas are necessary for meetings and that things that are written down are the only legitimate information to be shared).(3) A key questions to consider here is what are the ways that your ways of “doing business” – rules, policies, procedures, meeting norms, etc. – give or take power away or give voice to or silence certain actors?
#3 – The Power in Identity and Relationships
Who we are (identity) and who we know (relationships) provide another important source of power. Our identities may be marginalized, privileged, or oppressed, and may have hidden, visible, and invisible aspects. While we may immediately show up in a space and be recognized for our job title, race, and gender, other aspects, like disability status, previous lived experience, or personal relationships may lay beneath the surface. Being aware of how biases and our backgrounds may shape how we individually lift up or dismiss others is crucial.
Relationships, another source of power, may be more easily built with those like us, giving us more power over them or vice versa. When those with privileged identities have their bonds reinforced through structure, their power over more marginalized identities may increase. Additionally, we may end up reinforcing certain bonds through other structures we create, such as committees. Questions to consider about these sources of power include:
- What identities are privileged or most visible in the work that you’re doing? What consequences does that have for decision-making?
- How are you leveraging your personal, organizational, or sector identities?
- How can you use your identity to build or share your power?
#4 – The Power in Framing
Finally, framing is a type of power that can control or direct the outcomes of our social change efforts. Frames are the stories we carry about why things are the way they are. Often, the stories of the most powerful partners may drive the narrative in a specific direction. When working in homelessness, I often worked with communities who had stakeholders bringing different frames to the issue, such as:
- There are too many people experiencing homelessness downtown.
- There’s not enough affordable housing in the city center.
- Too much of the housing being developed is luxury housing targeted toward younger residents.
Leading with one of these frames without considering the others may lead to incomplete and inadequate ideas for addressing them. For example, focusing solely on the first frame may just encourage cities to move people experiencing homelessness from one location to another or to ban encampments, neither of which provides long-term solutions, addresses root causes, or offers any progress on the other two issues named. Creating space for multiple frames, and recognizing how other types of power may allow some partners to drive which frames are dominant, is crucial to effective work.
In the end, managing complex power dynamics is essential to achieving our broader goals. Rather than ignoring the issues surrounding power, understanding and talking about the many ways it presents, recognizing our own power, and working alongside others who may be able to complement the power we have all can help us do more effective work. As you think about the change you want to seek, whether it’s within your organization, your collaborative, or the cause you work in more broadly, reflect on these questions:
- How can talking about the sources and types of power with others help you move the work forward?
- What are some individual choices you can identify and make to test or shift the power dynamics in the room?
- Which types of power do you want to challenge? Give up? Use more often?
I invite you to reflect on these questions alongside me.
- CITATION 1: Brouwer, H., Hiemstra, W., Vugt, S.v., & Walters, H. (2013). Analyzing stakeholder power dynamics in multi-stakeholder processes; insights of practice from Africa and Asia. Knowledge Management for Development Journal, 9(3), 11-31. Retrieved from http://www.mspguide.org/resource/analysing-stakeholder-power-dynamics-multi-stakeholder-processes-insights-practice-africa
- CITATION 2: French, J. R. P, Jr, & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in Social Power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.
- CITATION 3: Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view [Kindle book]. Retrieved from Amazon.com