It’s a classic tale of the trajectory of a nongovernmental organization (NGO): a well-meaning organization grows rapidly, crafts a beautiful strategy, and has all the right subject-matter expertise in place, only to realize late in the game that it neglected to build the systems and processes necessary to support its mission and vision.

Today, a similar phenomenon is evident in the philanthropic and international development sectors as they too evolve and mature.

In recent years, these sectors have begun to sharpen their politics to tackle problematic power dynamics within civil society and philanthropy itself. ‘Trust-based philanthropy,’ ‘localization,’ and ‘big bets’ dominate the conversation. But, just like the NGO that overlooks the importance of systems and processes, we are not talking enough about the way we operationalize grant funding and foreign aid. Lack of infrastructure hinders the ability to reach a goal. If we do not operationalize funding in a way that aligns with our politics, we will fail in our mission to shift power.

Shifting power means that grantee organizations drive the agenda through donor-grantee relationships based on trust, support, and solidarity. But that should also translate to thriving ecosystems and stronger movements, organizations that are not suffocated by administrative burdens, and activists who can focus on the important work at hand and not be forced to constantly chase the funding. Right now, even as ideals like shifting power and localization dominate the debate in our sector, too many funding opportunities are concentrating rather than decentralizing power, are opaque, or come with administrative hurdles or other demands that are out of reach of the organizations whose voices are needed most.

A better way forward

To foster ambitious change – and truly shift power while doing so – funders must focus not on organizations but on systems. As donors localize and place big bets, they should ask themselves if their funding will help sustain the ecosystem, if it will generate conflict between organizations, if it will help democratize funding, or if, perversely, it will serve to concentrate power or leave grantees overly dependent and ‘donor driven.’ Perhaps funders could begin to think about how widely they are able to spread their funding and how doing so can support positive inter-organizational dynamics, rather than how large they can make a singular grant.

Read the full article about shifting power by Clare Gibson Nangle and Devon Kearney at Alliance Magazine.