A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

You Don’t Need the Ruby Slippers

Many Americans don’t believe we matter in a system where powerful interests seem to make the rules. Almost half of eligible voters don’t even turn out for elections. Feeling powerless may be our most common self-deception, and our biggest danger.

As leaders like Eric Liu remind us, we have tremendous power, if we recognize it and choose to use it. (Watch Eric’s TED Talk, Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power.)

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Historic levels of inequality. Deepening economic hardship. Racism and sexism. Political and cultural polarization. Public funding for social services slashed. A changing climate moving toward a tipping point, bringing storms and rising seas.

Too many smaller foundations and donors—and there are thousands across the country—see themselves only as mini versions of large foundations. In comparing asset sizes, they fail to see their unique powers, which many organizations would die for: freedom, agility, access, and local influence to be catalysts for change. Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” you’ve had the power all along. You just don’t see it.

Let’s look at what makes small funders uniquely powerful.

  • Human assets—Consider the creativity, passion, and resourcefulness of founders, trustees, family, and staff.
  • Freedom to focus on an issue, and persevere over the long termPhilanthropists have the freedom to “go deep” on an issue, and commit. Most problems are complex and can’t be solved with short-term, scattered investments.
  • Freedom to take risks—The U.S. government gives foundations the freedom to experiment and take risks to a degree not available to institutions beholden to customers, shareholders, and voters. The power to support new and promising programs, grantees, and ideas—and fund and engage in advocacy—can change the status quo.
  • Stature and reputation—Small-staffed funders’ identity as donors and long-term community investors gives them prestige and cachet—a gravitas that can lend credibility to less-known and ignored issues, projects, and organizations.
  • RelationshipsSmall funders operating locally hold a wealth of connections with diverse people in their communities. They can leverage these relationships to gain knowledge, develop partnerships, and exert influence.
  • AccessPhilanthropists’ stature, cachet, and reputation can open doors and get calls answered—empowering them to meet with community leaders, legislators, business people, researchers, and others who have knowledge and influence.
  • Ability to develop deep insight into issues—Small funders can take the time to listen to community leaders; learn about gaps, needs, and leverage points for change; and become experts. Insight helps them identify solutions and address key issues in the smartest ways.
  • Capacity to develop trustListening and keeping confidences allows small funders to develop credibility and trust over time with grantees and community members. Trust opens the way for honest conversations where needs, obstacles, and failures can be shared. Some local funders earn the credibility to be called upon to broker and mediate sensitive public–private partnerships.
  • Agility and responsiveness—Governed and staffed by just a few individuals, and closely connected to grantees and communities, small funders can move fast when needs and opportunities emerge. Agility can make a huge difference in a fast-changing advocacy and policy landscape.
  • Convening powerSmall-staffed foundations have the reputation, independence, and time to convene diverse stakeholders to make sense of important issues, develop ideas and solutions, and build collective will for action.
  • Freedom to commission researchSmall-staffed philanthropists are uniquely positioned to support the right research and data, at the right time, to build a case for community or public support.

How can we become more aware of our powers, and embrace them?

When small funders fully use their powers, they’re more like organizers and catalysts than traditional grant givers. The executive director of a small foundation observed, “To help a community change, you can’t parachute in; you need to burrow in.”

It’s easier when we put ourselves in new environments and open ourselves to new ideas. The freedom to “put yourself out there” is itself one of your greatest assets. Commit to an issue, and venture out to talk with diverse people who are knowledgeable. Attend public meetings, lectures, and forums; walk around your community; take people to coffee; ask them to think big, to dream. Listen deeply.

Then consider what roles you might play to help people change the status quo. You may find that lending your voice, your reputation, your convening power, or your relationships can make a crucial difference.

The geographies where small funders operate—small towns, cities, local regions—are emerging as laboratories for citizen-led movements. You are beautifully positioned to nurture these efforts.

You’ve had the power all along.

See also the Exponent Philanthropy publication Twenty Ways to Make a Difference: Stories From Small Foundations >>

Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.

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