In this long-read blog, Sarah Thomas, SMK’s Head of Power and Participation, challenges the sector to acknowledge – and invest in – the true cost of taking action to shift power and build greater solidarity in social change.
SMK’s Power Project was a two-year inquiry, supported by the Cornerstone Fund, into civil society, social change and first-hand experience of poverty and inequalities. We heard a genuine desire in the sector to create more equitable ways of working with people who profoundly understand the consequences of inequality and its potential solutions. However, we also heard that despite notable exceptions, current attempts often fall woefully short.
Too often, individual staff within organisations are tasked with creating strategies for engagement and participation without the wider support, understanding or resources required for meaningful relationships and transformative change.
The challenge of creating fairer more equitable organisations – and a fairer more equitable sector – is systemic. This will not be resolved by anyone in a single role or department. It requires commitment and investment.
Our publication, It’s All About Power, is a challenge and an invitation to the sector to take a closer look at power, to inform action for deeper solidarity in social change.
It’s All About Power
Many of us working in the sector talk about ‘sharing power’ but, without an understanding of the different ways that power can show up, efforts can be experienced as tokenistic or even exploitative. As Lucie Russell, CEO of StreetDoctors and participant in the Power Project says, “Talking about power seems simple, but actually it’s radical. It gets to the roots, shakes the foundations of the charity sector.”
Talking about power can feel abstract and theoretical – or sensitive and uncomfortable. But power is everywhere, and it affects everyone, in complex, contextual and intersectional ways. Having open conversations about power can shine a light on the different ways power affects us all. Our tool, the Power Lens, can help make sense of complex terrain, and our resources are designed to support reflection and conversation.
With power dynamics at play in all aspects of organisational life, everyone within an organisation – whether your role is service delivery or fundraising, communications, policy, leadership, governance, or grant-making – has a role to play in creating the shift toward greater solidarity in the sector. Our tool, the Power Framework, will show you how.
Practical steps to transforming power
The Power Framework is a tool for informing and planning strategic action to reshape power in social sector organisations.
Each quadrant of the framework reveals a different dimension of power across two axes – from the individual to the societal, and from the formal to the informal. This reveals how power exists in the distribution of resources and in the formal rules, policies and governance process we enact. But it also reminds us to pay attention to aspects of power that may be invisible, hidden and harder to predict – to individual consciousness and capabilities and to the cultures we form when we gather and work together.
There is no quick fix, or one-size-fits all approach. Action needed will depend on your organisation and the people and communities you work with, but some of the insights our inquiry revealed are listed here.
1. Redistribute resources
Conversations about ‘sharing power’ in the sector often focus on sharing resources. It’s only part of the picture but is of course essential.
Pay people: Expertise has value, whether it draws on first-hand or learned experience, or both. If paying money might cause someone problems, ask them what would work for them instead.
Think of the cost of participation as essential, not an extra: Ask people what they need to be able to participate in a project – everyone’s barriers will be different. Travel expenses, internet or childcare costs paid in advance, or meeting at a different place or time of day, could make a difference. Ensure costs are factored into fundraising expectations from the start.
Take a broad view of resources: Technology, funds, social networks and jobs may be taken for granted by those that have them. Those that don’t might rely instead on mutual aid, or creative responses. Talk to people about what’s happening ‘on the ground’ before determining which resources are available or needed, and how best to apply them.
Support funders to adopt participatory approaches: Not everyone has the power to determine funding policy and practice, but anyone can gather and share evidence to support that shift. Try to develop an honest relationship with funders, make the case for more participatory approaches and gather evidence of success.
2. Rethink policies and governance
Formal structures, policies and governance exist to mitigate against abuses of power and hold organisations and the people who work in them to account. Yet, if poorly designed or overly bureaucratic, these same processes can (and do) exclude the very people that organisations need as partners in change.
Improve recruitment policies to unblock routes to employment: Ideally, people with first-hand experience of social issues will be represented across the organisation. This means creating organisations that are more permeable, with recruitment (whether for paid or voluntary roles) designed with people with first-hand experience in mind. Advertise pay scales up front. Remove identifiers from application forms before shortlisting. Consider more flexible employment policies that allow your organisation to benefit from diverse expertise. Think carefully about what skills, experience and education are genuinely essential for the role.
Put power analysis at the heart of governance: Changes to the Charity Governance Code explicitly require boards to assess and address power dynamics as part of the Integrity Principle, as well as part of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Including power analysis as part of organisational integrity is a significant shift (the Power and Integrity initiative was set up to support this shift). It requires an explicit awareness of how power affects all parts of an organisation’s work in interconnected ways, from recruitment to working culture, to understanding unintended consequences of activities, to managing risk.
Go beyond providing a seat on the board for people with first-hand experience: Bringing knowledge and insights based on first-hand experience into decision-making spaces is essential. But bringing a single person with that experience onto a board and expecting them to contribute without support or training – or to represent everyone with experience of the issue – is irresponsible. Go further. Think about what it would take to make your organisation as permeable to first-hand expertise as it is to learned expertise. Boards need to be on your list, but what about jobs, other voluntary roles, project oversight, strategy development, horizon scanning, or skills development?
3. Create inclusive cultures
Deeply ingrained assumptions, practices, behaviours and relationships in the sector – the ‘rules of the game’, obvious to some but not to others – maintain the status quo. Shifting this culture requires diligent effort to make it visible, challenge exclusionary practices and create more inclusive alternatives.
Invest in the time and space it takes to build trust: Factor in the time it takes to bring people together and develop meaningful, trusting relationships from the start. Schedule opportunities for ongoing conversation – don’t leave it to chance. Move ‘at the speed of trust’. As one Power Project participant described, “Stay in touch, keep connected. One bad day can change everything – people with lived experience will need your support.”
Pay attention to culture within the staff team: A person’s job title, personality, personal relationships and identity will affect whether their voice is heard and has influence. Competing organisational priorities can mean the needs and interests of certain individuals or teams might dominate the agenda. Ensure frontline staff, and those tasked with participation and engagement, are properly resourced and supported, with access to decision-making spaces.
Challenge and disrupt exclusionary social norms: Stories and images that evoke pity to generate funds have been justified as a means to an end, but they feed into negative stereotypes and reinforce social narratives (eg ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ poor) that perpetuate inequality. Social sector organisations have a responsibility to use their platforms to tell more authentic and nuanced stories, to challenge stereotypes and improve representation in the public sphere – or use their resources to create platforms for others.
4. Develop consciousness and capabilities
We tend not to be aware of our own power and privilege, or the way it affects how we see the world or interpret other people’s experience or situation. To get better at seeing how power affects us all requires an investment in learning and a commitment to interrogating our own consciousness, capabilities and hidden assumptions and creating spaces to encourage others in the organisation to do the same.
Start with yourself: Reflect on what you hope to use your power for and why (the exercises in It’s All About Power may help). Acknowledge the limits of your own (or any) individual point of view and actively seek out different perspectives. Practise ‘listening to understand’ and be willing to be ‘checked’ on your assumptions and behaviour.
Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable: Questioning things we take for granted is never easy, but it is an essential part of transforming the power dynamics that cause inequality and exclusion. To really value knowledge and insights gleaned from first-hand experience can be hard for people who have invested energy and resources in academic learning or in a career in the social sector – but it is essential.
Ask people, and keep asking, what matters to them: Not many people are entirely comfortable in a new or unfamiliar environment. Give people from outside the sector the best chance of bringing their most thoughtful selves to a conversation by sharing your questions in advance. Allow them space to develop new ideas or change their minds. Be alert to the power dynamic between different roles and positions. Seek out alternative ways for people to be involved that go beyond sharing stories of hardship. Work together to identify needs, plan, take action and reflect on success – and ensure people have the power to choose.
Create space for collective reflection and political awareness: Poverty and inequality can cause feelings of shame, stigma and personal responsibility. People can’t always identify the underlying structural issues that impact them. Meeting and reflecting with others with shared experiences is one way to locate individual experiences within a wider political context. This, in turn, can promote collective understanding and generate possible solutions. Supporting people to shape solutions that are ambitious but achievable can be more constructive than promising them they can change the world if only they ‘believe in themselves’.
Unleashing the power of the sector
The charity sector can no longer act as the ‘hero saviour’ of Victorian philanthropic tradition, it needs to reimagine its work as a partner, working in active solidarity and employing its resource, capabilities and reach alongside people’s first-hand knowledge of social issues to unleash our collective power for change.
As we heard on the Power Project, “You can’t put responsibility to fix a system on the people who are on the receiving end of it. People in positions of power need to take their responsibility seriously and use it well.” Abdicating responsibility – or assuming a single engagement or participation role has this covered – is simply not an option.
By transforming power at the heart of social sector organisations, we believe those organisations can act in deeper solidarity with people and communities – and unleash our collective power to create change.
This long-read blog is an edited version of an article Financing the True Cost of Participation that first appeared in Charity Finance magazine, 1st July 2022.