How Resource Power Dynamics Can Stifle Social Change

Piles of toys

Whenever a person, community, or organization is in need, there is often a resource power dynamic at play. There might be someone or some institution with resources that could benefit those in need, but the donor and recipient might have different views on the best way to meet that need.

After last December’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, people from around the world showed support to the community by donating teddy bears, toys, and an array of other items. Just a couple of months earlier, we saw a similar outpouring of material donations like blankets and canned goods from people who wanted to ease the suffering of those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

In both instances, the high volume of donations showed a strong charitable spirit, but the material donations often overtaxed the communities they intended to benefit. Newtown opened warehouses to store the goods, and volunteers from other towns came to help sort through everything that arrived. Local and national media published images and shared videos of just how many donations arrived in Newtown, sending a message expressing gratitude for the gifts, but requesting that donations stop. Websites of the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Administration posted announcements asking that products not be donated, explaining that FEMA and many disaster relief organizations do not have the people, time, and money to distribute the donations. If people wanted to contribute, the communities preferred to receive money instead of material goods.

On the institutional giving side, the same tension exists between what the organization needs in terms of flexible money and what foundations or government can give. General operating support grants, which allow the grantee to decide the best use of the money, are often preferred to restricted grants, which fund specific programmatic areas.

It’s important to note that when someone sends a teddy bear to Newtown, a blanket to the Jersey Shore, or when an institution designates a grant for a specific purpose, the donor does so in order to show support or help. In fact, they might be acting strategically, knowing the type of change they want to affect, and giving the resource that will meet that goal.

As an attempt to break, or lower, the power dynamic between the donor and ultimate recipient, philanthropic organizations are experimenting with models that bypass an intermediary like the American Red Cross or another nonprofit and go straight to the community they want to help. Two months ago the Atlantic published an article about GiveDirectly , a nonprofit that collects donations online and gives cash directly to poor households in Kenya. The article walks through the benefits and challenges of cash donations with no strings attached, and what a future of direct philanthropy would mean to the nonprofits whose services might not be needed.

I’m struck by how frequently those of us working to create social change are faced with the opportunity to determine how our resources –be they time, knowledge, or money– go to those we want to assist. Recognizing that an inherent resource power dynamic exists is the first step. The second step is conferring with those whom you hope to help to find out what they need, and asking them the best way to make it happen. While you might have lots of free time, a unique piece of knowledge, or financial resource from which they could benefit, know that they have an intellectual resource that you probably don’t possess: an understanding of what life is like for them, and how their life could improve given your resources.

What are other examples of times when a community in need could have benefited from a resource that the donor did not know, or want, to give? And what are other organizations or policies that struggle with the tension of giving unrestricted cash instead of funding a specific intervention or program?

photo credit: Mara Lavitt/New Haven Register

One thought on “How Resource Power Dynamics Can Stifle Social Change

  1. We really enjoyed your thoughts on resource power dynamics! Our mission at Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) is to inform the public of best practices when donating to charity or disaster relief, which echoes many of the points of your article. Through the production of education materials and traditional and social media outreach, we’re spreading “Smart Compassion”- the act of giving effectively through cash
    donations- as the best charitable response. Part of that mantra is understanding what people on the ground are going through and what they require.

    There have been countless times, where in-kind donations have complicated disaster response operations. Our goal is to fill the gap in that disconnect between in-kind donors and the people they are trying to help and we are thankful that you are helping to draw attention to these issues.

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