Power Plays

by SF Team, 10 July 2020

In his book The 48 Laws of Power Robert Greene describes how he believes power works. He sets out to simply describe, not encourage he says, the systematic gaining, wielding and retaining of power. The focus is entirely on power over or in relation to others.

Many have criticised him for producing what has become a handbook to those most keen on being or becoming more powerful in the world. Whether the laws he outlines should be seen as an instruction manual is a valid question. However, even his critics can’t say that these rules don’t apply and are not in active use.

In what Greene describes as somewhat of a counter measure, he has written Mastery, an exploration of how talent is developed, underpinned by the encouragement that you can rise above the oppression of power by being excellent at what you do, to the extent that nobody can argue with your results. Meritocracy 101.

The message is clear - power exists in this set form, and the only way to escape the ill effects thereof is to be exceptional, to be so special that others find it impossible to wield their power to your detriment. We’ve been socially conditioned to believe that those with more power deserve it more, and those without have somehow not followed the rules, done their bit, or lived up to their inherent potential. The system is rigged to keep everyone in their place.

What does this have to do with philanthropy? Power is the fuel that makes the system go. The flow of money creates a power dynamic that is all-encompassing, which affects every engagement and has a very real impact on the results achieved. Philanthropic funders (consciously or unconsciously) apply Greene’s laws to their interactions with grantees - taking credit for the work of others, guarding reputation at all cost, using selective generosity. Keeping grantees on their toes is seen as best practice, a way of weeding out mediocrity.

In turn, grantees are told that they can free themselves from the tyranny of funders by simply being excellent, staying the course, showing results. The idea is that they can claw back some of the power by being better than the system, better than their competitors, the best at playing the grantee game. Which ironically is supposed to then give them a bit more freedom to not have to play the game quite so hard.

We have a different perspective. We believe the system can and should be dismantled, turned on its head. Power is not something you should have over others, it is something you have in relation to others, in collaboration with others. Like knowledge it can (and should) be shared without diminishing its value to you. It would be wonderful for everyone to recognise their own power and how it contributes value to an ecosystem. To get there, a lot of hard work needs to be done. We have to examine every part of the system as we know it and actively build in practices that enable shared power to emerge.

We have been working with our Fellows on a system of philanthropic exchange that enables, encourages, enforces practices that disseminate and share power.

Posted in philanthropy