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Reconsidering Power and Privilege in Philanthropy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
April 29, 2021

Nonprofit organizations do great work in our communities, and may seem to be champions of ethics and equity by default. However, there’s been little examination of the true extent to which nonprofits promote equity and the extent to which they may, in some ways, actually increase inequities. For those of us involved in the philanthropic sector, how can we ensure that the nonprofits with which we work are truly acting in the best interests of our communities and in ways that are ethical and equitable for all?

In the nonprofit sector, ethics and ethical practices have been viewed in different ways. Some perspectives take an internal view, such as donorcentrism. From this perspective, nonprofits act ethically when their actions are aligned with the wishes of those who fund them. Conversely, others have begun taking a more externally focused view such as the service of philanthropy perspective, which considers philanthropic work as a way to do good work in the community and in which the community as a whole is considered.

Additionally, scholars have begun to discuss the centralization, or decentralization, of power in philanthropic efforts. In many communities, you might see that the same individuals or families are the ones sitting on nonprofit boards and making large gifts to nonprofits. This allows them to have a greater say about the work that is done or not done by those organizations, which in turn gives these individuals and families who are already really privileged an even greater level of power. If nonprofit leadership and development staff are primarily focusing on these people by asking for their service and contributions, they may unintentionally enforce the idea that a select few have power. This also means that others who don’t have the resources to serve or donate (and therefore don’t get a seat at the decisionmaking table) are further marginalized and silenced.

While it’s not realistic to say that any one nonprofit is fully responsible for inequities and power imbalances within their community, it’s not unreasonable to say that they do hold some level of responsibility. How can this be addressed? How can nonprofits and those working for them create more equitable power balances within their communities?

Nonprofits could start by taking an internal look at who makes up their organization, who contributes, and who is considered when making decisions. For example, the development team could take a look at their lists of donors and supporters to identify potential gaps. If this list tends to be homogeneous, the fundraiser may consider seeking meetings with those of other demographics. While it may not be appropriate to ask for monetary contributions from all other groups (for example, those of lower socioeconomic status), the fundraiser could identify other ways for them to be involved with the nonprofit’s work, if they would like to be. Some may be able to give in non-monetary ways, such as by volunteering or making in-kind donations. Others may not have the capacity to do this, but could still contribute to the nonprofit’s work by sharing their ideas for future programs or telling stories of their interactions with the nonprofit to other stakeholders.

In addition, nonprofit board members can take an internal look to see who is represented on the board and, perhaps more importantly, who is not represented. If those of certain demographics (e.g. race, gender, age or socioeconomic status) are not represented, outreach efforts can be made to create a more balanced board. However, balancing demographics on a surface level isn’t sufficient. Boards can also consider how much power or authority their members have in the community, and the extent to which their members experience marginalization. Ideally, boards can work to elevate those with lower levels of power and those who may have historically been marginalized, and open doors for their voices to be heard. To be truly equitable and representative of the community, a board should include members who are (or who have been) directly impacted by the organization’s work. By following these and other steps, a larger portion of the community—and especially those most impacted by the nonprofit’s work—will be represented and considered in the nonprofit’s efforts.

If those working with nonprofit organizations wish to place ethics at the forefront of their work, they should act in a way that is in the best interest of the community as a whole. They must also act in a way that is equitable and that centers the voices of those who have been previously marginalized, and that ensures that small groups of people do not hold too much power over the work being done by the organization. By taking these steps to embed ethics and equity into their work, nonprofits can play an important role in creating more equitable communities for all.

Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the director of research and outreach at the VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. Her research focuses on nonprofit organizations, refugee/immigration policy, and gender-based violence prevention and intervention. Twitter: @BritKeegan

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