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Power, privilege and public good

What does it really take to be aware of power and to give it up?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about power. Who has it, who doesn’t; who knows it, who is blind to it and the consequences of how it is consciously and unconsciously exercised and redistributed.

In September, I had the privilege of moderating a couple of sessions at the Philanthropy Australia conference. Besides an incredible event with hundreds of people and some great sessions, it pressed me to contemplate power. The keynote speaker, Larry Kramer, who heads up one of the USA’s biggest philanthropic funds – the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – gave the keynote address. It was an impressive speech, but something unnerved me. He argued that philanthropists don’t really hold power over grantees because without the grantees, the foundations would have no one to give the money to.

To me, that analogy was about as close as saying that politicians don’t hold power because they rely on people existing to have someone to preside over.

Maybe my analogy is a little far-fetched, but the existence of grantees doesn’t negate the fact that power is held by the individual or organisation with the resources. The funder gets to decide who is and isn’t worthy of funding. Many charities rely heavily (sometimes fatally) on other people exercising this power in their favour.

The relationship between power and privilege, and a lack of power and poverty, have been very well established throughout history. None of this is new. The most interesting part of these relationships to me (along with other positive and negative examples I’ve experienced throughout my career as a female in a male-dominated hierarchy), is when and whether people see the power they have; when and whether they directly or covertly use it; and when or whether it’s used for public good or self-interest.

Latent power potentially most insidious

Many people have written about power, including NYU Professor Steven Lukes, who argued that there are three dimensions of power. Specifically, back in 2005 in Power: A Radical View, he wrote about overt (intentional and open), covert (intentional but concealed) and latent (hidden and unnoticed) power. It is the latent power – the power that we are blind to – that is potentially most insidious.

It was Lukes’ latent power that I quizzed Larry Kramer on and, after the conference, it was this type of power that I began to ask myself about: what power do I have or am I subjected to that I am blind to?

In exploring Lukes’ three power dimensions, I’ve had long discussions with my colleague and friend, Shamal Dass, head of philanthropic services at JBWere. He recently talked about these power dimensions during a UNSW Sydney Town & Gown speech where he challenged the audience:

“What sort of power do you have? Have you really thought about ALL the dimensions of power you have – or your roles bestow upon you? And, are you willing to move beyond your comfort zone and utilise your power?”

He reminded the room of Harvard Professor Paul Bataldon’s point that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and asked people in the room whether they’re willing to use their power and to give something up to change the system in aid of “creating the Australia we want, rather than live in one we have just ended up in”.

One remarkable man who not only used his power for public good and gave up significant amounts of money and time to do so, was the late Robin Crawford (AM). Sadly, Robin passed away on October 18 this year.

Vale, Robin Crawford: an incredible role model

As CSI UNSW’s Adjunct Professor Michael Traill wrote in the AFR, “Australia [has] lost one of its leading philanthropic and business role models”. Not only was Robin one of Macquarie Bank’s most innovative investors, he was an incredibly innovative and generous philanthropist.

He was a founder and funder of The Centre for Social Impact, Social Ventures Australia, Goodstart Early Learning and the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Cancer Centre.

He was a man who had no misconceptions about his privilege and power as he talked about having “been born with a reasonable mind and afforded opportunity” and he took seriously his “obligation to use those gifts to try to make a difference.”

Robin made a remarkable contribution to making this world a better place. The thoughts of the CSI team are with Robin’s family and friends. He truly embodied the role that business can play in doing good and demonstrated how power and privilege can be used for the greater good.

What does it really take to be aware of power and to give it up? Going back to Larry Kramer’s belief that there isn’t a power differential between philanthropic funders and non-profits, Kramer had previously said that “the power dynamic is not real, it’s a creation that becomes real only because everyone wants to believe it.”

I disagree. [For the record, I challenged him on this point at the conference in the session I was moderating on failure where he was a panellist. I told the audience that one of my failures throughout my career has been in relation to not calling truth to power when I see it and have enough power to call it. It’s promise I’ve made to myself to redress.]

Let’s stay with the grantors (whether from philanthropy, corporate or government) for a moment longer. Funding what the grantor wants, rather than what the grantee needs constantly reinforces power dynamics and feedback loops within systems that reinforce the status quo.

Take homelessness: the homelessness service system constantly struggles to meet needs. And while we are not funding the levers to reduce homelessness or the levers to create safe, affordable, secure, appropriate and accessible housing, we are continuing to perpetuate a system that will never be able to keep up with the servicing of homelessness, let alone reduce or prevent it.

We released our Amplify Insights: Housing Affordability and Homelessness Report this week (at the same time that we announced our participation in The Constellation Project) outlining the key levers for change for this complex problem.

The questions this (and a couple of decades of research in this space) raises for me are: What if we could end homelessness by pulling these levers? What if we could garner a cross-sector collective of visionary leaders and actions around creating safe affordable, secure, appropriate housing for all? What if we knew how to end homelessness? Would we do it?

As Shamal Dass, asked: “For those of us with so much, what are we willing to forego, so that we can achieve the society we want?”

Understanding and redeploying power and exercising concerted leadership will be key if we are going to address complex problems like homelessness. The world needs more visionary leaders like Robin Crawford. May he rest in peace and may those of us who are left behind be aware of and have the courage to use our power for creating a stronger, better, fairer society.

This article was first published by the Centre for Social Impact.

Author Bio

Kristy Muir

Professor Kristy Muir is the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Impact, a collaboration between UNSW Australia, Swinburne University of Technology and The University of Western Australia.