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Alex Cole-Hamilton

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Associate Consultant

Alex is one of NCVO's associate consultants, focusing on governance work.

Associate Consultant

Join our powerful journey: Power & integrity launch

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Associate Consultant

Alex is one of NCVO's associate consultants, focusing on governance work.

Associate Consultant

It starts with power

Power plays out in complex and multifaceted ways. So, it may seem simplistic or unrealistic to suggest that addressing power can enable a more coherent and holistic approach for nonprofits to work with integrity. But a growing number of us believe that it is foundational to organisational integrity.

From our sector’s work on tackling societal inequality, we know that systemic power structures, such as colonialism, patriarchy, and racism intersect and underpin unjust societal ‘norms’. These power structures influence how we experience society, work, home, and even how we see ourselves. Unchallenged, they fuel discrimination, exploitation and exclusion, further skewing society in favour of existing privilege.

Until recently, the prevailing assumption among nonprofits has been that inequality exists in society, but not within our own organisations or sector. In other words, mission-led = inherent integrity.

Assumptions of inherent integrity, combined with pressure to deliver impact with minimal overhead costs, resulted in many aspects of integrity management being shoe-horned into the most relevant teams. As a result, safeguarding, equality, anti-corruption, sustainability, etc, often continue to work in silos.

Unfortunately, this piecemeal approach hinders our ability to see where our organisations reflect wider societal inequalities. It doesn’t always highlight the harm we cause. And it prevents us from fully understanding how we can improve.

So, with NCVO’s support, we are launching Power & Integrity (PI) to enable more coherent and holistic approaches to organisational integrity – informed by understanding and addressing power. Our open-source initiative aims to cultivate shared learning within the nonprofit sector. This journey will take time.

For starters it will involve:

  • developing language and frameworks to address systemic power, and cultivate positive forms of power
  • understanding how seemingly separate aspects of integrity share root causes and can be addressed more coherently
  • exploring the roles of leadership and governance in transitioning to power-sensitive organisations
  • developing an enabling environment through enhanced sector-level coherence and collaboration.

The wakeup call

When the story of sexual abuse by Oxfam GB’s staff hit the press in February 2018, the immediate focus was to strengthen safeguarding. But a deeper look at Oxfam’s culture revealed much more complex harm. The Independent Commission’s interim safeguarding and culture report in January 2019 flagged Oxfam’s institutional colonialism, racism, and sexism. While this was a shock for many within the organisation, many others felt relief that the inequalities were finally being recognised and, having been documented, would be properly addressed.

Over the last three years, Oxfam GB has sought to understand this finding and how to move forward. In their 2022 strategy, they recognise that addressing deeper power issues underpinning colonialism, racism, and sexism in structures as well as behaviours requires significant culture change. They acknowledge that ‘radical, lasting change will only happen if we give at least as much weight to how we work as what we do’. Their strategy is their public commitment to that change.

While it was Oxfam that attracted the headlines in early 2018, it is increasingly clear that structural inequality is a sector-wide issue. NCVO, who are hosting our work, has experienced its own failings, including issues of harassment, victimisation, race discrimination, as well as management and wider cultural issues. The organisation has recognised and apologised for these failings and committed to change, beginning its own journey to change its culture.

By working closely with NCVO, but retaining independence in our work, we hope to draw on their experience, share our learnings and do what we can support continued efforts for an equitable and inclusive NCVO. You can read more about the failings and culture change work at NCVO.

More and more nonprofits are acknowledging the unhealthy power dynamics that arise from deeply embedded institutionalised inequalities which manifest as racial and gender discrimination, bullying and harassment, among other forms. There is a growing recognition that organisations and the sector need to reflect the change they seek – a more just world.

Through a power lens

PI believes the first step towards working with integrity is to recognise that every organisation, regardless of its mission will, to some extent, reflect society’s deep inequalities. A strategic, holistic approach requires organisations to analyse how biases play out at individual, cultural, strategic, and also sector levels. It is critical that perspectives from people with lived experience of various forms of structural inequality, are significantly represented to ensure analysis and decision making is not blind to bias.

Knowing how power works can also highlight how seemingly separate aspects of integrity interconnect. From this, shared root causes can be identified and enable a more coherent whole-system approach for moving forward. For example, applying power analysis frameworks to ask how the organisation reflects societal forms of inequality in its mission, strategy and culture supports a deeper dive into multiple aspects of integrity.

This does not diminish the need for specialist knowledge and focus for specific aspects of integrity. Rather, it helps create a strong and integrated understanding of the harm caused and the necessary steps to address them in a coherent way. It enables organisations to be proactive rather than reactive and, most importantly, minimise harm.

A better understanding of power can also help challenge binary assumptions, such as “power is good or bad”, or “some people have all the power, while others have none”. Such simplistic views, which fail to acknowledge diverse forms of power, and do not accommodate for nuance, can have devastating consequences.

Power of synergy

Integrating power-sensitive practice requires continuous learning and diverse perspectives to develop a deeper and shared understanding. By learning collectively, and sharing the learnings openly, we can build a solid foundation for all nonprofits to strengthen their integrity.

As part of this, we will learn what is already being done in the sector, build relationships with existing networks and organisations to understand what is needed to enable more coherence in integrity work.

We will run a power lab: a series of workshops with a small cohort of organisations to test and develop power analysis for organisational integrity. Practical frameworks and learnings will be made openly available. We are thrilled to announce that Oak Foundation has just confirmed that it will support the lab to enable organisations to take part with little or no cost.

We’ll help build an enabling environment for the sector to work on power and integrity. Our aim is for nonprofits and sector-level organisations to work, not just collaboratively, but in synergy.

We approached NCVO to host our start-up phase, as their goals include connecting the sector and embedding new ways of working. Also, having faced the devastating impacts of how inequality manifests within their own organisation, they’re truly committed to supporting our work. We believe that with NCVO’s support, we can hit the ground running, and cultivate sector coherence much more effectively.

Join the journey

We welcome organisations to be part of this pioneering work, as well as individuals who have skills, experience and/or perspective that could help steer our course. We are looking for:

  • sector-level organisations to explore ways of developing sector-wide coherence and synergy
  • UK-based nonprofits seeking to take part in our power lab
  • individual participants to take part in mini labs on understanding power
  • funding partnerships to support this much-needed and ground-breaking work.

We hope you join the journey to support our sector to achieve its goals with integrity. To learn more, please visit the PI website. You can also contact me directly at alex@power-integrity.org.

Note: This blog was updated on 19 May 2022 following conversations and feedback to better acknowledge and reflect failings at NCVO.

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