Nonprofits in a World of Shifting Power

Staying relevant means bridging Old Power and New Power.

By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt

We live in an era in which power is shifting from old players to new ones. From cultural institutions, to philanthropies, and grassroots advocacy movements, this is not just a changing of the guard. It is a fundamental rethinking of how we run organizations, how they bring value to the world, who gets a seat at the table, and whose voice is consulted and valued. It is also a push to question what is good, what is right, and what is necessary in the work of social change.

Illustration by Merit Myers

Our role as branding experts in the nonprofit space affords us unique access to the challenges and vulnerabilities organizations wrestle with day in and day out. We confront these head-on as we guide our clients through the process of sharpening their positioning and branding. After working with dozens of clients, we’ve started to see trends and commonalities across sectors. One such trend has to do with the shifting shape of power in our world.

We live in a time defined by the growing struggle between Old Power and New Power, two paradigms at odds with each other. It may seem like what is “old” is on the way out and what is “new” is here to stay, but it's actually more complex than that. The key to navigating these new waters may lie less with throwing out the old and embracing the new, and instead with learning to be fluent in both.

What Does Old vs. New Power Look Like?

The framework of Old Power and New Power was developed by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in 2014. Almost nine years out, their diagnosis of our society has only become more accurate than ever.

According to Heimans and Timms, Old Power is like currency: owned by the few, jealously guarded, inaccessible, top-down, operated through command and control. New Power, on the other hand, is like a current. It flows. It is open, participatory, peer-driven, and collaborative. It channels power rather than hoards it.

Old Power downloads; it is “curated” and controlled by one leader or entity who decides what to give and what to keep. New Power, on the other hand, uploads; it is a generous and dynamic stream of information owned and shared by all, for the betterment of all.

Old Power in the Nonprofit World

Foundations, especially private ones, are bastions of Old Power, dedicated to preserving and extending their power for as long as possible. Even though their primary purpose is to direct money towards charitable purposes, the vast majority of them only disburse the legal minimum of 5% of their endowments every year, keeping the remaining 95% invested in stocks, bonds, and other assets. Even on the grantmaking side, the explicit and implicit norms that govern how they grant money, who they grant it to, how they manage the relationship, and how they measure their success is notoriously traditional and antiquated.

Pushing change through traditional halls of power is another example of Old Power: impact litigation, policy advocacy, lobbying. Each of these pieces are uniquely powerful in the larger game of social change, but more and more, they have come under the social microscope for being opaque, paternalistic, and concentrated in the hands of too few.

New Power in the Nonprofit World

A different tide has been rolling in—New Power in myriad forms.

Though it has been around for years, participatory grantmaking has recently gained prominence in the philanthropic zeitgeist. It flips the equation, placing decision-making power in the hands of those who are closest to the problem, challenging traditional notions of expertise, removing institutional barriers, and enabling otherwise overlooked individuals and organizations to access funds. In contrast to Old Power, this New Power model of grantmaking is transparent, peer-driven, and collaborative.

It’s not just funding organizations that are feeling New Power’s influence; advocacy nonprofits are too. Organizations that used to operate solely at the grasstops are adding grassroots work to balance out their theories of change. As New Power gains traction, these multistrategy organizations are locked in internal debate over who should set the agenda. Should strategy be informed by impacted communities and those with lived experience? Or should strategy be informed by who is in political power and what windows of opportunity are available from a policy perspective?

Mounting Pressure on Nonprofits

Many of the clients we advise are Old Power legacy institutions. And they are facing internal and external criticism from those who wield and value New Power. Philanthropies are under mounting pressure to move from traditional grantmaking to participatory grantmaking. Advocacy organizations are encountering demands that they shift their priorities toward the needs and values of impacted communities, allowing the people closest to the problems to determine what is important and what is necessary.

While Old Power is asking what are the best ways to defend the Constitution from erosion, New Power is asking, “Why must we pledge loyalty to a document that was racist to begin with?”
While Old Power is asking how to drive more philanthropic money to racial justice, New Power is asking whether philanthropies are complicit in the very racial disparities they are trying to mitigate.
While Old Power is trying to win the game, New Power is pointing out that the players themselves may be compromised and demanding a whole new set of rules.
While Old Power is asking, “How can we do more good,” New Power is asking “How can we do less evil?”

Shifting power presents new and interesting challenges for legacy organizations that are feeling the pressure to change in ways that feel contrary to their DNA. Organizations often sense an agitated atmosphere within their teams and embarking on a rebranding journey often reveals what has long been floating in the air. Rebrands have always been anchored in questions like, “What is the purpose of this organization?” and “What makes the organization different from other players in the field?” These alone used to inflame passions in both staff and leaders, but in this new era, the questions are cutting even closer to the bone.

“What is our power for? Are we putting it to the best use? Should we wield it, share it, or cede it?”

Power Need Not Be Binary

New Power is on the rise, but is it more effective than Old Power? Does it have to be an either/or?

New Power surges. It rises quickly, swells like a wave, reaches a peak, and then recedes. It is dynamic, eager, sometimes impatient for change. It is an effective tool for forcing conversations and influencing change. New Power is impossible to ignore.

But New Power is frenetic energy. New Power often lacks structure, clear roles, and leadership models (even if that is collaborative and distributed) required to get things done. This is why Occupy dissipated into a little more than a ghost of a populist uprising. And yes, while New Power can force and influence change, it does not hold the final keys, which means that New Power still has to cooperate with Old Power. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, has galvanized a whole generation around the urgency of climate change. They are a hugely important force shaping policy agendas, but they still have to play nice and negotiate with classic Old Power, whether that is Congress or the United Nations.

Let me be clear, neither is inherently good. Old Power is both Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas. New Power is both Obama’s 2008 campaign for hope and Trump’s 2016 campaign for Make America Great Again. Power, in either form, is only as good as the intentions behind it.

For better or for worse, Old Power is still the way the world works and how change is made. It has structure, hierarchy, connections, and fluency in the status quo of our world. It has a track record of making change and getting things done.

Embracing Both Old and New Power

Rather than adopting one over the other, success in this new era will be defined by the extent to which organizations can become bilingual in both forms of power. New Power will be an essential skill going forward. It’s a mindset and muscle that we’ll all have to learn to flex.

And we see this in our work with organizations all the time. Philanthropies want to be seen as more than just a funder. They want to be seen as strategic ally, respectful advocate, and thoughtful counsel. No longer satisfied with their distant positions in an ivory tower, they want to decrease the distance between themselves and the people they are trying to help with their funds.

Policy advocacy organizations that have historically operated at the “grasstops” are increasingly realizing that wins from on high are rarely durable unless they are bolstered by a strong, ground-level foundation. Grassroots and grasstops work create complete feedback loops. Grassroots mobilization builds power from the ground up, increasing the pressure on the grasstops to create the necessary change. Once these advocacy organizations are able to push change through at the top, they turn to their grassroots arms to fortify the work by demystifying new policies and rulings and educating individuals to understand and defend their full rights.

As more and more organizations become bilingual in both forms of power, we can start to see the chasm that divides Old Power institutions and New Power movements as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

In this new world, bridging Old and New Power is quickly becoming a new and intriguing value proposition for legacy institutions who are ready to reinvent themselves to be more relevant in these new times. The rolodexes of legacy institutions run deep; they often have direct channels to policymakers, sector leaders, powerbrokers, high-net worth individuals, and influencers. With this kind of access, New Power-enlightened legacy institutions, who understand and value transparency, participatory models, and power sharing, can carve out a new space for themselves, no longer as bastions of Old Power, but as translators, bridgers, and brokers between what always has been and what now could be. These organizations have a unique opportunity to position themselves in the middle and define a role that helps to channel New Power ideas to influence Old Power ivory towers.

A First Step in Addressing the Challenge

We at Hyperakt are working through, closely examining, and wrestling with the tectonic tensions in this power struggle. This paradigm shift is not something we consult on at a distance, even as a small team, we ourselves feel the tremors.

This moment is fluid. And our greatest stride forward has been being able to give it a name. This framework of Old and New Power has clarified what we are going through — and that all corners of society, whether it is at the dinner table or the negotiating table, are going through it together. We can see the challenge more clearly now. Defining the problem is a huge step forward, even when the solution may still remain unclear.

We know that being bilingual and transforming Old Power into bridging and brokering power is a key part of the larger puzzle. But we don’t have all the answers. Have you experienced this power shift in your own organization? In the spirit of transparency, collaboration, and New Power, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a note.

If you’d like to chat about your organization’s readiness for rebranding, you can find us here.

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