More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“Interview: Power in Giving”

All too often, philanthropy replicates the power dynamics that it is trying to undo in society. Those holding the purse strings are seen as all-powerful, and those requesting funds feel like beggars. We interviewed a leader in grantmaking who is working to turn these dynamics around: Rebecca Rimel, the president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Even though Pew ranks as one of the country's largest private philanthropies (with an annual grantmaking budget of about $180 million) many of Rebecca's comments are applicable to individual funders.

More than Money: When I heard you speak at a conference last year, I was impressed by your passionate commitment to making Pew respectful of grantees. How did you get sensitized to this issue?

RR: From my personal experience applying to foundations for money. This was years ago, when I was in health research. I'll never forget how intimidated I felt calling them up, and how I worried each and every day after I sent in the application.

MtM: Well, now that you're in charge of 120 staff members, how do you imbue in them the same awareness and commitment?

RR: First, I urge staff members to throw out traditional notions about the "helpers and the helped." Grant applicants are really our "customers", and like any business, we want to serve our customers so they will come back. Grantees are bringing to us their life's work, their best ideas. I want our staff to treat them with the caring, respect, and humility that this deserves.

MtM: It must be hard for staff to stay humble when they are in this obvious power position relative to grantseekers. How do you help your staff keep perspective on their service role?

RR: Yes, it's a serious problem. Funders get treated with deference even if they do a bad job. I tell my program officers to notice the first time they're standing in line at the bank or grocery store, and a small, huffy voice wells up inside saying, "Why am I standing in line? I'm too important for this!" When that happens, go home, look yourself in the mirror and give yourself a good talking to! Arrogance is a subtle infection that will spread if you are not constantly attentive.

MtM: How do you help your staff have that kind of vigilance?

RR: "Commitment to service" is like a constant drumbeat here. We regularly give awards to staff members who have gone that extra mile. We also encourage all staff to volunteer: nothing counters arrogance like going canvassing and having the door slammed in your face! Senior staff are urged each year to take on the humbling challenge of raising money for a cause of their choice. Finally, we use humor, especially if we see people taking themselves too seriously.

MtM: How do you break through that wall of deference to get honest feedback and criticism from the folks you serve?

RR: We use many methods. We have an ombudsperson, a trustworthy and neutral person who actively goes into the nonprofit community to solicit their comments. We send out surveys with our publications that ask our constituents how we can serve them better, and on our Internet Home Page we encourage people to send us feedback about how we are doing.

And whenever we put out a request for proposals on specific topics--a funding initiative--we first get extensive community input to make sure we're on the mark.

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