Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Do We Grow Impact and Share Power in a Networked World?

October 18, 2011

This post also appears on Beth's Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits.

Power and Control

Among many insights gleaned from this week’s conference on “Growing Social Impact in a Networked World,” one theme keeps recurring for me: the importance of grantmakers sharing power and control within broadly construed networks of collaborators in the quest for social change.

During Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month, I’ve been reflecting on how concepts of power and control have shaped the dialog in the DV field. For nearly three decades, the “power and control wheel” has been the standard tool within the DV victim services field to describe the most common tactics used to control and abuse victims.

The power and control exerted by grantmakers are certainly not analogous to these abusive behaviors in most respects. But naming a behavior is an important step toward changing it - and many thought leaders at the conference have commented on power and control:

“How can you support [a network] but not be the air traffic controller and the pilot at the same time? There’s no such thing as giving up control, but sharing control is critical," notes Chris van Bergeijk, of the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“The control thing is huge. [Instead of] linear logic models being the norm, mix the right ingredients together, count to ten, great things will happen. There’s the potential to go much further.” Steve Downs, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said:

Be wary of "replacing one ‘command and control’ environment with another," cautions Bill Traynor, of Lawrence CommunityWorks.

“Forget control. Control is so not possible. Put an idea out and engage people in the conversation," Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing commented.

Why it’s hard to share

In a philanthropic culture where grantmakers are held accountable to measurable results and careful stewardship of the resources entrusted to us, sharing power and control can feel irresponsible. As framed in a new publication from the Monitor Institute and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, we worry: “what if the ‘crowd’ doesn’t get it right”?

Lessons from survivors of domestic violence

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’ve been working on sharing power and control in our work with a network of agencies serving DV survivors in Washington State. We’ve tried to share control over project development with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence , with other funders, with service providers and with survivors. This has not been easy and requires a cultural shift for us in thinking more flexibly about how to drive toward social change.

Our partners in this work also have been learning to share power in new ways. If grantmakers feel accountable for measurable results, DV advocates feel a profound sense of accountability to the safety of the people they serve. This has sometimes led to the impulse to control the set of services that a survivor receives.

Through two years of dialogue and exploration of a new service approach focused on expanding DV services from crisis response to also include support of longer term stability, this network has arrived at collective prioritization of the value of survivor driven, voluntary services tailored to the needs of each family.

As agencies have handed over control of the service mix offered to survivors to the survivors themselves, DV advocates have observed that the services survivors prioritize as most critical to their longer term safety and stability are often cheaper and simpler to provide than the more limited service menus they previously offered. It’s too soon to know whether this shift will translate into cost savings over time, but initial survivor outcomes have been promising.

Many unanswered questions remain

The service approach is still evolving and will benefit from continued expansion of the network that is contributing to its development. Among the missing voices in the dialog are government funders, whose needs for unbiased contracting processes that promote accountability and prevent fraud don’t always lend themselves to the level of flexibility in resource allocation that has made these service changes possible.

How can the network expand to include the voices of the public sector? When have power and control been effectively shared across the public, private and independent sectors?

 
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