May 2, 2017; Urban Milwaukee
NPQ has written quite often over the years about how power differentials between community, nonprofits and funders can often play out to the detriment of community interests and real social change. The dance that is performed, for instance, in turning a set of community interests into “foundation-speak” is essentially a worldview translation that changes all frames of reference in favor of those controlling the money. Despite being portrayed as such, this is not a new notion; we heard it 30 years ago from staff at the Seventh Generation Fund. But it appears we have not taken it seriously enough, because every time it comes up, it’s treated as a surprising analysis…before being dropped and then forgotten.
The Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management recently presented a forum featuring Erica Kohl-Arenas, a professor at the New School with a background in popular education who authored The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. Kohl-Arenas challenged the room full of nonprofit executives to consider how their funding affects the substance of their work. She based that challenge on research she did on three initiatives in California’s Central Valley, including the Cesar Chavez-led farmworker movement.
Kohl-Arenas identified what she called “a war of position” between the different interests—including funders, nonprofits and the farmworkers themselves—involved in these movements. She said stakeholders in social change movements engage in “[multiple] layers of decision-making and agenda-setting.” These negotiations necessitate building consensus and often end up compromising the goals of those most affected by structural inequalities. According to Kohl-Arenas, “Institutions made of industrial wealth are not going to continue to support a movement that challenges industrial wealth.”
“Usually,” Kohl-Arenas added, “what ends up happening is that space in the middle leaves out the harder structural changes and root causes that the more powerful players in this war of position don’t want to address. Real wisdom comes when people engage in discussions, and analysis and research about their own lives, and build community-based strategies for change in partnership with stakeholders and organizations.”
You can view her analysis of how foundations and nonprofits engage in “the negotiation of popular myths” as underwriting theories of change around fundable work—too often, to the detriment of social change and community self-determination—below.
Patrick Schrank, director of programs at Milwaukee Christian Center, who also attended the Bader presentation, agrees, saying that nonprofits must “center” the conversation on—and include the voices of—those being served.
“It’s really challenging to keep the infrastructure in place [and] keep the funding in place to do the work. And, that can, sometimes…dominate the conversation,” said Schrank.—Ruth McCambridge