The Elephant in the Room: "Funders" and Power | Beth's Blog

The Elephant in the Room: “Funders“ and Power

Networked Nonprofit

Guest post by Eugene Eric Kim (

Over the past two days at the GEO / Monitor Institute conference, “Growing social impact in a networked world,”( I’ve heard several people ask some variation of the same question over and over again:

What is the role of the funder in all of this?


This question has been bugging me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. During Mary Manuel’s session on movement and networks, it came to me. There’s an elephant in the room here, a word that I haven’t heard anyone use. That word is “power.”


Everyone here self-describes themselves as “funders.” If your frame is that of a funder, then your power derives from the fact that you give organizations money.
When you look at the world through a network lens, it’s not clear where money enters the equation. Investing in organizations may actually be antithetical to catalyzing networks. Networks need resources to operate, but they are not necessarily resources of the type or the scale that foundations are good at granting.

Given this, there’s a generative version of the question, “What is the role of the funder?”, and there’s an insidious version. The insidious version is:


Do I (the funder) still have power in a network-centric world?



When we express anxiety about giving up control, it’s really anxiety about losing power. (This assumes, of course, that you had control of the system in the first place.)


The generative version is:


What can I do to catalyze the network?


When you remove your “funder” hat and think of yourselves as changemakers who bring many resources to the table, you find that you have a plethora of resources to contribute:


  • Convening power
  • Access to data
  • Access to thought leaders
  • A systemic view of different challenges
  • And yes, money


Perhaps the best thing you can do is not give money to networks, but instead leverage your other resources to help catalyze networks. If your identity is tied to being a “funder,” that may be a scary proposition, because it literally means a loss of identity.


The question that foundations who truly care about contributing to this space need to answer is: Are you willing to exchange your “funder” hat for a “changemaker” hat?


Eugene Kim

Eugene is co-founder of Groupaya, which helps groups work together more skillfully to create their futures. Groupaya (

9 Responses

  1. Valdis Krebs says:

    Great post Eugene!

    Maybe Funders should act like VCs who connect the start-ups they invest in? Kleiner Perkins does this well. Here is CleveOH biomed start-ups get connected (to each other, and to customers/supplier) via incubators and cross-company events.

    The person with the purse should be a great network weaver if they want to see the money well spent!

  2. Nancy White says:

    Oh, I know this elephant. How about funder behavior. What does “I don’t want to influence this meeting so I’ll just sit back and listen” telegraph to everyone else? It is a form of power.

    I have seen some funders arrive, fully present, human as themselves and clear on how they can or cannot (or won’t) represent their organization. This kind of presence and clarity really helped! How do we encourage more of this?

  3. Steve Downs says:


    Great, provocative post and I’ll take the bait. This issue did come up in one of our sessions, thanks to Paul Connolly, who asked the question of whether, even if we act in networks more like your description of changemakers who bring resources, can we realistically not still be perceived as the powerful funder? In other words, despite our posture and our actions, can we avoid being who we are (i.e. the powerful funder)?

    So I think it’s essential that we as funders see ourselves as changemakers who can (and not always should) bring resources to the table — and participate shoulder to shoulder, but it’s probably wise to remember Paul’s question and be cognizant that a power dynamic is still in play.

  4. Thanks, Stephen. I think Nancy’s comment is key here. We can’t pretend there is no power dynamic, but not participating may actually worsen that dynamic. There will always be power dynamics in the room, including but not limited to the funder/fundee dynamic.

    I think what’s even more critical is that we be explicit about power in our discussions about networks. If we can’t have an honest and explicit conversation about what power means and how the power equation shifts in this new world, then we’re not going to be able to work through these difficult issues.

  5. Tory says:

    I can use any of you “funders.” I network for elephants, real elephants, and the funders are the lifeblood of our accomplishments. On my fb page I list the plights of many elephants and where they need that help. IE Adopt an Elephant on both Facebook and its own website has a group of people who get together to fund the rescue and feeding of 3 elephants. None of this would happen if we were not networking our contacts who become the funders. I guess the only power dyamic involved is to fund or not fund a plight. Unfortunately there are too many to chose from with slaughter for ivory, circus abuse, zoo breeding, trekking, painting and the list goes on and on. All need funding to either directly or indirectly help.

  6. Tory, congratulations. You have skillfully validated what many folks from foundation fear when they enter a room and try to have an authentic conversation: that people will turn every conversation into a pitch. 🙂

    That’s understandable. You need to be aggressive about fundraising and getting the word out about your organization. That’s what enables you to subsist and do your work.

    So I’d like to ask a favor of you and anyone else who may be listening. Help me validate the other side of this coin. Suppose that these foundation folks had no money to give. How would you want to interact with them? What would you want to learn from them? What would you want to tell them? Is there anything that they would be uniquely suited to do to contribute to your community, your network, your cause?

  7. Beth says:

    Eugene, I’m nodding my head in agreement!

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