Laura Nash

On the morning of Thursday October 11, 2018, foundation and nonprofit communications professionals packed San Francisco’s Curran Theater, picking at boxed breakfasts. Originally scheduled to take place at the Westin St. Francis, ComNet18’s organizers chose to relocate when Marriott workers went on strike the Friday before the conference. The vast majority of conference participants, including myself, applauded The Communications Network’s decision. After all, foundation and nonprofit professionals are dedicated to serving the public interest. And acting in solidarity with laborers marching under the slogan “one job should be enough” is certainly that. Right?

Nonprofits and foundations operate within a strange power dynamic. While we aim to meet people’s basic needs, shrink inequities, and uplift the voices of marginalized communities, in doing so we often reinforce societal hierarchies. “We” hold the money and the resources; “we” dispense what “they” need. ComNet18 keynote speakers Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, who co-authored the book New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You, asked conference participants to consider where our organizations fit into the power structure. Do our organizations subscribe to old power values like institutionalism, competition, confidentiality, professionalism, and loyalty? Or new power values like self-organization, collaboration, transparency, and short-term affiliation? Do they employ old power models like traditional media organizations, government bureaus, retail businesses, or new power models like social media, crowd funding platforms, decentralized social and political movements? I think everyone in the theater wished they could cry, “New! We’re of the people, by the people, for the people.” Instead, we had to admit that philanthropy is old. We’re gatekeepers. We might feint at or aspire to collaboration and transparency, but we’re still institutions, and we still force people to compete for our resources.

That said, old power can be a useful thing. Another ComNet18 keynote speaker, Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, described Planned Parenthood’s campaign to stop Congress from defunding them in 2015. Planned Parenthood is over 100 years old and provides reproductive health care at hundreds of clinics across the country. It operates within an old power model, which makes a lot of sense. I would much rather receive a pap smear or an abortion in a sterile medical office from a certified medical professional. Fortunately, a long history and loyal patients and advocates enabled Planned Parenthood to amass a large audience and plenty of support for their campaign. When Cecile Richards defended Planned Parenthood in front of Congress, people were watching. They saw Richards calmly answer questions while Republican congressmen became more and more irate and insulting. Planned Parenthood was not defunded.

Power can exploit, but it can also elevate. On Thursday morning, after filling our stomachs with Chobani yogurt, donuts dense with glaze, and hard boiled eggs sealed in plastic, we heard from producer, writer, and actor Lena Waithe. Waithe spoke about depicting Chicago’s South Side in all its complexity. Grey characters—characters with depth—do more to change narratives about minorities than flat, positive characters. She also talked about the power dynamics in Hollywood where money rules. Studio executives don’t get any points for buying something from me anymore, Waithe declared. They know I’ll make them money. I use my power to convince them to buy scripts from unknown black writers.

By choosing to move ComNet18 so as not to cross the Marriott employees’ picket line, The Communications Network used its power to amplify the impact of the union’s strike. Or did it? The Westin St. Francis didn’t return the money The Communications Network had already paid for meeting rooms, food, and service, so the hotel didn’t lose any money. Although many conference participants switched hotels, many more didn’t, because they couldn’t find available rooms anywhere else at such short notice. In actuality, The Communications Network itself probably benefited the most from relocating. True, they lost money, but they also gained the ability to humble-brag about their decision and their commitment to their values, earning praise from conference presenters and conference goers alike, and effectively elevating their brand.

Social good organizations walk a thin line when it comes to using their power for exploitation or elevation. It’s a small step from leveraging power to secure rights and uplift voices to taking advantage of a situation and reinforcing divisions. And that line isn’t always clear.