Making not shaping power: first thoughts from the front line, by Rhiannon Bearne

Rhiannon Bearne

Rhiannon Bearne

A recent Better Way Roundtable afforded me the opportunity to reflect on power. In the process I was shocked to realise how little I talked or thought about power explicitly in my work. I had lots of language which seemed to be about power – system change, co-production, lived experience. But questioning power – what it was, where it was and whether anyone involved in Changing Lives had any – wasn’t on my radar.

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s social power grid shown below illustrates this tension well.

SMK’s Social Change Grid

SMK’s Social Change Grid

The ‘formal’ and ‘controlled’ spheres of service-providing charities and institutional power rub-up against the more ‘messy’ and ‘unpredictable’ social movements and protests. Campaigning movements call out the cowardliness of ‘big charity’. Many charities providing services loudly assert that ‘we don’t campaign’.

Charities and movements in both the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ sections of the grid have something in common. This is a shared tendency to see power as ‘other’: an entity which is held outside or beyond a person, place or project. For service delivery charities like mine, our job becomes one of developing tools and systems to help people access that special place where power resides, such as central or local government, or the people who commission services. The problem with this approach is that we can end up behaving passively in relation to power. We develop ways of working from the outside to affect power – but, crucially, not to unlock it for ourselves.

Those of us who have been in the informal, messy bit of the social power grid know what being genuinely empowered feels like. You feel energetic, impassioned, focussed, a bit scared – you feel deeply powerful. This is a qualitatively different experience to dressing a bit more smartly, preparing the things you will (and won’t) say and getting ready to perform - like those other people with power. 

Often the work of charities aimed at empowering people can unintentionally end up focussing on the latter. A colleague brought this into sharp focus recently when she talked frankly about the moment someone with lived experience challenges the implicit and unconscious norms of ‘how things are done’ in places of power. As she said, ‘We’ve all been there. It’s all going well and then someone with lived experience does or says something in the wrong register or to the wrong person – and everyone cringes’. She’s talking about that moment the house of cards falls; the moment we realise the person speaking does not know the rules of the game – and the pretence of them being empowered collapses. And, really, it’s our fault.

So if charities like mine are at risk of simply giving people the tools to ‘pass off’ as powerful, rather than be genuinely empowered, what needs to change? At Changing Lives we probably need to build our own power grid and decide which bits of our work fall where. This might mean recognising the differences between work which supports the building of others’ power, and work which actually builds power for those we work with. Taking an asset-based approach or conducting peer-led research or training will foster behaviours, experience and insights from which power can grow. But, if we’re serious about changing the dynamics of power, ‘big charity’ also needs to look at ways we can build new sites of power.

When we ‘other’ power we implicitly assume it is a zero-sum game. That there is a finite amount of power which we have to wrestle back or unlock. One of the starting points of voluntary action is that power is unequally distributed and unfairly used. However, as the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s Power Moves work shows, power can also be built – and crucially, shared.

The central question for frontline organisations, especially the people in or with power, then becomes one of willingness. Whilst we can support the building of power we will also need to give some away – directly challenging our own behaviours, norms and status.

Where to start then? Perhaps we need to:

1. Acknowledge our starting point

We need some sense of what embodied power looks and feels like. We need to differentiate this from the tools we use to get us there, such as specialist training or confidence building. We need to start talking about power throughout our organisation. We all need to think about giving power up.

2. Foster a constructive sense of entitlement

At the recent Better Way Roundtable this fantastic phase was used. We need to reflect on our organisational behaviours which support this – whilst calling out those that don’t. Some of us will have to back off, making space for others.

3. Prepare for a long and unexpected journey

Making rather than shaping power is probably going to be a very different process to the activities we’re familiar with. We need to get comfortable with this complexity.

If we is can build people’s actual power, alongside their power to participate, we have a greater chance of creating change which is genuinely transformational.


 Rhiannon Bearne is Head of Policy at Changing Lives a social inclusion charity based in the North of England. Through a range of specialist services Changing Lives works with over 15,000 people each year experiencing complex needs. She is also chair of the Millfield House Foundation, a funder supporting policy and campaigning work in the North East of England.