The Elephant Has Left the Room

Sasha Rabsey

A few weeks ago I attended a conference with two grantees, both African women engaged in grassroots work for adolescent girls.  I was excited to be able to introduce them to potential funders and collaborators—after all they’re doing superb work on a critical issue.  Yes, their financials checked out, their impact assessments looked good, their stories were compelling.  But for me it was about the work they were doing. Both women are deeply thoughtful and respectful of the community they serve, critical qualities of successful leaders,  so I was looking forward to validating their efforts.  That is exactly what did not happen.

For most of the conference I was on an emotional roller coaster as I watched both women come up against the subtle but unmistakable signs of white power and privilege in the world of donors and grantees.  I felt terrible as one said to me  “I don’t know why I came, I would have learned more doing my work at home” and started to wonder if I’m as guilty as any other donor.  Aren’t I in a position of power and privilege in regards to my grantees?

I don’t believe the intention of any donor at the conference was to hurt or run roughshod, but there was evidence of a paternalistic attitude discouragingly easy for donors to adopt when dealing with grantees.  It starts when we say “what can I do for you.”   Asking this question implies a power imbalance between donor and grantee.  When I started this work I considered the question  to be polite and respectful;  I’ve come to understand, though, that the question elicits a sense of “other.”

How do we shift the conversation, right the imbalance?  As donors we need to have the humility and honesty to be clear about our contextual and cultural lens, the “default assumptions” we use when we interact with grantees. This is an uncomfortable exercise because it forces us to face our whiteness, our privilege, and all the less than pristine laundry that comes with these labels.  I want to have an open conversation with grantees that allows me to be who I am and use my power and privilege to support others but to carry this out in a way that knocks down the hierarchy and promotes  teamwork,

Why do I do this work?  Let me be frank.  It’s because it makes me feel good. But I can’t feel good if I am behaving in a way that;s anything but collaborative.  Yes, I want my grantees to make me look good by doing stellar work but I can’t tell them how to do that so my half of the partnership is to be supportive.  To me that means providing funds but also establishing a relationship that assumes I will listen, learn and do my damndest to not make a fool of myself.  For all of us to be the best we can be is to look deeply at ourselves and where we come from.  I started my journey as a white woman of privilege. I am still a white woman of privilege.  What I know now is that to create a true partnership with those two powerful African women means that we walk the journey together.  The right question is not “What can I do for you.”  It is “What can I do with you.”