06 Sharing power

It’s time to re-examine philanthropy – in particular, the roles money and power play in the relationship between funders and those they fund.

Traditionally, funding relationships centre on money. Funders have money and set the terms for getting it. Applicants tell funders what they want to hear in order to get that money, keep it, and then get more of it. This pursuit of money slows momentum and distracts from the mission.

Although good does come from this model, inevitably the funder assumes an understanding of the problem and ends up influencing the solution. But if funders had all the answers, they could just hire project managers and execute their plans themselves. This is the paradox of most funding models: the change agent has the best experience to address the issues but ends up having to execute within the world view of the funder.

At the Shuttleworth Foundation, we believe the central idea of empowering social change isn’t just funding it, but broadly redistributing power. We structure our relationship with fellows as a partnership, so they have the power to implement, test and refine their ideas, not ours. We back them to make the right decisions based on their world view and experiences. This is a deliberate process of empowerment, helping fellows gain confidence, think bigger and build towards their vision.

A relationship of mutual trust and respect needs to be built between funders and those they fund. This is often an uncomfortable process, and not always welcomed by either party, but it is important to have the tough conversations, with honesty and care. It is these very conversations that enable growth, increased resilience and the kind of power we need to effect change.

Funders must have trust in those they fund, and vice versa. It is central to a fellow learning and evolving over time, and to their contribution to collective power as well as their own. Everyone – funder and fellow – needs to be able to make mistakes, iterate and learn, but this only works if we all commit to authentic engagement, learning and evolving in a bilateral manner. Trust, based on sharing knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, creates bonds forged and reinforced over time.

To this end, we offer fellows a support system and the connections they need to acknowledge the power they hold, to share in the collective power of the fellowship, and to learn how they can evolve their ideas – and themselves – to hold power and be leaders in the spaces they occupy. Open is the mechanism that enables this trust. By centring on openness, we build the kind of power that can outlast founders, projects and financial ebbs.