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Shifting Power in Your Organization and Community

Author: Dr. Deryn Dudley

In this companion article to Filling the Well podcast episode "Shifting Power Dynamics in Philanthropy," deepen your understanding of power and learn about power-shifting practices that you can integrate into your organizational culture or community.

Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Access Leadership Podcast

“Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What purpose does power serve in your organization or community? If you could shift how power shows up, what might change?

In my role as Vice President of Learning, Evaluation, Engagement at NAS and Strategy Consultant with 3DCC, I work to support arts and culture leaders who drive inspiring change for the future. Understanding power is essential in driving change. To advance equity and create a society that better serves everyone, it is imperative we work to shift the imbalance in existing power structures.

This article will help you consider how you could shift power and unlock creativity in your organization and beyond. Then, put it into practice with facilitated brainstorming exercises and examples from the field.


Part of Filling the Well

This article is connected to Episode 2 of Filling the Well, an Arts Midwest podcast created to nourish, provoke, and inspire artists and arts leaders.

For any non-profit, funding is a perpetual worry. But what if philanthropy shifted power and encouraged organizations and communities to dream big? Explore trust-based funding models with two thought leaders, DeAnna Cummings and Tish Jones. After listening to the episode, go deeper using the tools in this article.

Learn More



Defining power

Power is a complex and difficult construct to fully understand. At its most basic level, power is to have “control over” something (e.g., decisions, resources, etc.). The imbalance of power is responsible for much of the ongoing inequity in the world and considerably impacts the way we live, work, and relate to one another. As a result, to advance equity would require a major shift in the power dynamics at play in the systems and structures that shape our society.

Expressions of power

There are four ways that power can be expressed.

Expression Definition Example
Power over Domination or control over another Funder has power over potential grantees by requiring a lengthy application process for grant consideration.
Power with The ability to act collectively Community Arts Initiative where partners 12 community organizations work together to introduce youth to the art-making process and increase the awareness of the importance of art in youth lives.
Power within Individual or collective sense of self-worth or value; confidence that comes from the belief in one’s right to act and being treated well by others The CEO’s or ED’s confidence in themselves and his/her/their staff to achieve the organization’s mission while staying true to their values.
Power to Individual ability to act or do As an artist, I have the power to achieve my goals – to use my art to build connection and reduce isolation in my community.

When power can be expressed as positive and transformational, it helps to…

  1. Reduce conflict
  2. Build capacity
  3. Foster learning and growth
  4. Ensure an equitable distribution of resources
  5. Ensure that the actions of all invested in a specific issue can lead to change
  6. Promote ownership that is essential to change
  7. Increase the possibility of finding sustainable solutions to social problems


Shifting our perspectives about power

There’s a shift that needs to take place in the way we think about power. Power is not finite. When thinking of power as finite, the word itself has a negative connotation. “Power over” is about domination, coercion, or control over an individual, a community, an institution, etc. Those who have it, exert their power over those who don’t. The expression of “power over” stems largely from our perception that power is finite – that there is only so much power to go around. Seeing power as an infinite resource encourages those that have power to share it, without feeling like power is lost, while those that have often felt powerless feel emboldened to exercise their power.

Participatory grantmaking is one example of a power shifting strategy. In traditional grantmaking decisions are made by only a few individuals who often have no connection to the communities they seek to serve. On the other hand, in participatory grantmaking, community residents and community-based organizations have decision-making power in one or more elements of the grantmaking process, such as strategic priorities, grant allocations, scope, and impact and performance measures.


Faces of power

Shifting power can be difficult and complex because, much of the time, the power dynamics at play are not visible.

Visible power is easy to see – rules, laws, policies and procedures. These are the formal rules that people with power use to guide decision-making (e.g. policies governed by state arts councils.)

Hidden power is when power is maintained by manipulating agendas and controlling who gets a seat at the decision-making table. Those with power see and understand the rules of the game, while those without do not. (e.g. grant-making criteria that is not shared publicly with potential grantees)

Invisible power is manifested when people adopt the psychological and ideological belief systems created by those with power. Problems and issues are kept away not only from the decision-making table but also from the minds and hearts of different people including those affected by these decisions. (e.g. negative stereotypes that limit roles and participation of certain groups).

What are the dimensions of power at play in your organization or community? Use the Power Matrix activity below with your community or organization to identify the underlying dimensions of power you are working within and how might you think of shifting those power structures that are imbalanced.


Try it for yourself

Are you feeling inspired? It’s time to try it out using a Power Matrix. This activity will help deepen your understanding of power as a three-dimensional, dynamic process. It asks people to think about how the various dimensions of power impact their work and the kinds of strategies that can influence those dimensions. This exercise is best done in a small group or several small groups.

Step 1: Remind participants of the three power dimensions of power: visible, hidden, and invisible.

Step 2: Give each group a worksheet or flipchart paper using the Power Matrix below and ask them to respond to the following prompts.

Visible Identify the individuals or institutions that have the power to change laws or policies. Who are the decision-makers?
Hidden How are decisions being influenced from behind the scenes? Who sets the agenda? Who is included or excluded from making decisions? Who may have an interest in the issue, but are influencing decisions outside of the public eye (e.g. role of business, banks, special interest groups, etc.)
Invisible To what extent are those with the least power unable to address the issue, simply accepting the situation they find themselves in and why? What beliefs or “mental models” of power are at play? How is their opinion shaped by society, education or the media, and internalized?


Step 3: Discuss – What are some examples of each of the three dimensions of power that you have experienced or seen in your work and your community?

Step 4: Discuss – What are some potential responses or strategies to either counter the negative impact of these dimensions of power, or to build and catalyze the more positive expressions of power? How might you think about shifting the dynamics within these three dimensions?


Keep the work going

Shifting power takes time and practice. Below are a few core elements to ensure are included in your strategy for shifting power.

  1. Take the time to build trust
  2. Communicate often and in a variety of ways – appropriate for all stakeholder groups
  3. Create space and have an open mind for learning
  4. Ensure you have representation from all parties with a vested interest, especially beneficiaries
  5. Establish new policies and practices that allow for inclusive participation and decision-making
  6. Invest in a great facilitator


See Power Shifting in Action

Philanthropists Must Change the Way They Work to Support Artists

The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, an Oakland-based organization that champions the arts, promotes early childhood literacy, and supports research to cure chronic disease, has partnered with the national nonprofit United States Artists to create an annual fellowship program that provides artists with $100,000 each in unrestricted funds, as well as a variety of professional supports.

Participatory Budgeting NYC

New York City is experiencing a new kind of democracy. Through Participatory Budgeting, residents are directly deciding how to spend public money. Community members are exchanging ideas, working together to turn ideas into project proposals, and voting to decide what proposals get funded. Arts & Democracy is involved throughout the process as a cultural resource.

Additional Exercises

Power Flower

The “Power Flower” is a tool developed by social change educators when working with groups to identify who we are (and who we aren’t) as individuals and as a group in relation to those who wield power in our society.

Power & Money Mapping

Who has the power and money to make the changes we need in our communities? This activity helps identify and assess the local and regional political and community environment related to a specific issue, identifying opportunities to advocate for change, where to intervene.