The Role of Power in the Nonprofit Sector

May 03, 2016Emmanuelle Lacroix

I recently attended a couple of events with “Power” as the key theme (stated or implied) and it got me thinking about what power means in the nonprofit sector from the standpoint of capacity and talent development.

As I took part in a Future of Work Masterclass on Power & Leadership, we were reminded that we just have to look at the recent news to see how the traditional power dynamics and structures are transforming (imploding one might say). From the Arab Spring to the challenges faced by the European Union, from the rise of new forms of organizational design to the impact of technology and social media on knowledge access, the paradigm is shifting dramatically. Humans are power-based creatures, so we seek hierarchy and power structures to function as societies. History has also proven that too much of it, or too rigid an approach, is counter-productive. 

Because management practices are closely linked to broader societal trends, the paradigm shift is therefore also seen in the relationship between employers and employees. In the talent and HR management sphere, this translates into moving from the parent-child dynamics to the adult-adult one. In other words, organisations are (or should be) finding ways to empower their entire staff and provide sufficient autonomy so they engage and innovate. Situational leadership is a model that has found its place amongst the current practices.

Prof. Lynda Gratton, founder and CEO of the Hot Spots Movement, shared some very useful findings from their recent research on power, what it will look like in the (near) future, and its impact on leadership. Some of the ways leaders can adapt to and manage this paradigm shift include:

  • Project warmth to inspire active engagement of their human capital
  • Manage the emotional culture within an organization, and not just through a yearly staff survey
  • Enable the creation of psychological safety where their people can reach out, share ideas, celebrate failure
  • Think about loosening, not losing, control by providing greater autonomy and fostering (and modeling) agility and innovation
  • Develop a network of teams to leverage ecosystems beyond formal teams and departments

In the humanitarian sector, the goal of strengthening  the resilience (i.e. power) of local actors has been a consistent theme for some time.  Building local training capacity and working with local actors – which was the topic of another workshop I co-facilitated with peers and colleagues – comes up again and again, particularly as the sector explores localization of aid (a key theme of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul) and placing the communities it aims at supporting at the heart of its actions (as embodied by the Core Humanitarian Standard).

But for this to really happen, the key actors need to recognize the power dynamics at stake and learn to let go. Or maybe once again, it is about loosening up and facilitating partnerships between local and global actors.

In both forums, the role of technology kept coming up as a key factor for transforming power structures, and as a tool to eliminate barriers for these networks of teams. Whether its through peer exchanges, virtual connections, or social learning, technology has massive potential to both bring people together and exponentially increase their collective impact.  When used constructively, connecting people creates considerable power that can transform individuals, organizations and communities.


About Emmanuelle Lacroix

Emmanuelle (Em) is the Partnership Development Manager for the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation and is based in London to help expand the reach and impact of the Foundation’s portfolio of capacity building offers with a focus but not limited to the UK, France and... more


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