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Asking For A Friend...What's the role of philanthropy in supporting power-building efforts?

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“I’ve been hearing a lot about power-building as a strategy. What is the role of philanthropy in supporting power-building efforts alongside historically marginalized groups?” 


This week's column was written by Jessamyn Sabbag, Senior Director of Power Pathway at the San Francisco Foundation and panelist at our annual conference. Thank you Jessamyn for sharing your wisdom with the field!



Dear What is the Role of Philanthropy in Supporting Power-Building,

I’m so glad you asked this question! We know that cutting checks alone won’t realize justice. At the San Francisco Foundation, we define power-building as "the strategic act of shifting power away from historically oppressive systems and towards a new center of gravity that advances authentic democracy, redistribution, and reparation.”  

Power-building is a nuanced long-term strategy that transcends issues, constituencies, and geographies – it can be applied across a wide variety of philanthropic efforts, issues, and priorities. It challenges us to bring an analysis of power to develop grounded strategies that counteract the status quo and foster flourishing communities. 

Philanthropy must view itself as an integral part of the diverse ecosystem of organizations necessary to build and shift power. Deep partnership based on trust and accountability with social movement organizations is essential. While both the field of philanthropy and society at large are on a learning journey regarding power-building, leadership must emerge from those closest to the ground: movement organizations with proven track records in advancing social justice.  

Our role as funders is to strategically invest in scaling up movements and nurturing relationships, necessitating collaboration among entities with diverse approaches. We need to support movement organizations to reach more people, expand organizing infrastructure, amplify narrative change, and build capacity and influence. And, we must simultaneously invest in the deep work required to move hearts and minds, foster healing, develop leaders, and practice living the future they envision.   

Supporting power-building efforts entails philanthropy making several shifts from business as usual.  

  1. Transitioning from a focus on winning individual policies to cultivating power over the long term.  We need to reframe how we evaluate power-building successes by working with community partners to think beyond one-off policy campaigns, defensive fights, and single elections, and challenge the status quo more comprehensively and effectively.   

  1. Investing in building the scale of power needed to set, win and protect agendas led by and for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Long-term problems necessitate long-term solutions, which for philanthropy means accommodating more multi-year grants, giving general operating funds, supporting (c)4 organizations, infrastructure buildout, and leadership development. We must prioritize base-building and support critical components of the ecosystem such as research, advocacy, communications, cultural work, and legal assistance. Metrics must evolve to align with this new orientation. 

  1. Evolving the funder-grantee power dynamic from what can often be performative and tokenizing relationships with grantees to genuine, trusting, enduring partnerships with social movement leaders and organizations. 

Supporting long-term power-building presents philanthropy with an opportunity to demonstrate humble solidarity with social movement organizations, learning from and alongside them about what is necessary to forge a resilient and inclusive multiracial democracy where everyone is empowered to take collective action.

If you’re interested in continuing this dialogue, I’ll be speaking about this very topic alongside other leaders at NCG’s Annual Conference breakout session, “Strengthening Democracy by Building, Winning, and Wielding Power.” I hope you can join us.  


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