Who Decides? Where Power and Strategy Intersect in Organizations


By Shannon Ellis and Marissa Tirona

In this second of two blog posts on individual and organizational strategy, Shannon Ellis and Marissa Tirona share their thinking about the intersection between organizational strategy and power. In Part 1, “On Purpose: Aligning Individual Purpose and Organizational Direction,” CompassPoint Senior Project Director Michelle Gislason discussed the connections between personal purpose and organizational direction.

Power is always at the table when we’re discussing organizational strategy. It can show up in many forms: the new executive who is eager to change an organization’s direction but is struggling to anchor her vision among the existing strengths and current positioning of the nonprofit; program staff that actively inquire about where the decision-making lies and a management team that welcomes (or resists) the challenge; board members who approach the process with apathy – or over-confidence – about the current realities facing the organization. Telling the truth about what’s at play in these scenarios is critical for effective strategy formation.

Strategy is about making choices

At CompassPoint we define organizational strategy as “a set of choices that position a nonprofit to achieve exceptional impact in a financially viable way.” At its heart then, strategy is about making choices. Here are some of the “big” choices we often associate with strategic planning:

  • Should we serve the whole state or focus on a particular neighborhood?
  • Is our current approach having the community impact we intended?
  • Which elements of our work are best driven by volunteer labor and which by paid staff?
  • Which parts of our work are best supported by government contracts and which should be fueled by grassroots fundraising?

Each of these “big” choices cascade into a series of smaller day-to-day choices, and it’s those day-to-day choices that become the ongoing work of operating effectively within a strategic framework. As we live out an organizational strategy it informs how we structure our teams, staff our positions, and fund our work, but when done well it also drives the smaller choices we make daily about what we pay attention to, what we talk about, and who we include. Ensuring that our smaller daily decisions about how we spend our time and energy are fully aligned with our “big” strategic choices is at the heart of effective strategy implementation.

Who decides: The role of power

So if strategy is inherently about making choices, it begs the question of “who decides?” – which leads us in turn to consider how power and privilege inform our organizational decisions and behavior, both in the “big” choices and in the day-to-day. Effective strategy formation for social equity organizations requires that we be mindful of and explicit about the influence of power and privilege in our work.

To do so, we need to recognize that power comes in many forms. As we consider strategic alternatives, we need to be sure to analyze how power shows up – both among individuals within our organization and in the ways the organization itself holds power within the context of our work and the communities we work with.

Power, in its most basic form, is the ability of people to achieve the change they want:

Fundamentally our work - the work of social justice - is about power. Many of us entered social justice work because we were outraged by the harm caused by misuse or abuse of power. We are keenly aware of how power operates in the broader political and cultural context, and we strive to build organizations that have the power to secure justice and win social change. (From “What’s Power Got To Do With It? Owning Your Power as a Manager,” Management Assistance Group, 2009.)

Power is constantly at play in our organizations. It is also both complex and dynamic: a person who has power in one context, can be relatively powerless in another. Because of the very shifting, elusive nature of power, it is essential that we pay attention to who wields power in our organizations (and how they do so). Making change happen effectively means understanding and getting ahead of these shifts, otherwise we may be acting in the wrong place, on the wrong issues, or in the wrong ways. (From Power: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change,Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit, October 2011.) By engaging in this power analysis, we can increase our awareness of both destructive organizational power (oppressive and lacking in accountability) and constructive organizational power (accompanied by responsibility and accountability and builds the power of the group).

Power over is coercive and linked to domination and control; the power to command compliance.More specifically, we can consider how power is present in our organizations in these forms:

  • Power with is the kind of social power people give to respected individuals; the power to suggest and to be listened to.
  • Power from within is the sense of empowerment and creativity that comes from bonding and connecting with other human beings and the environment; the power to act.
  • Collective power is acting in the service of a common goal;  the power of a group when they act in concert.

Power and organizational strategy

One way to think about organizational strategy formation is that we are getting clear on how to effectively harness the power of ourselves as individuals (power from within) and our organizations (power with) to coordinate our efforts toward a particular social change (collective power). If we neglect this analysis, we cannot expect to create lasting social change in the complex issues we are here to address.

Accordingly, it’s important for us to understand how we use our power within our organizations. For example, at the most recent convening of the Strong Field Project Leadership Development Program in Half Moon Bay, we asked cohort members to explore when they are at their most powerful in their organizations. We used a liberating structure called Drawing Together that asks participants to answer that question using only five symbols and no words. We hoped that such an approach would both reveal insights not accessible with linear methods and evoke deeper meaning as to how they use their power within their organizations. As they worked on their drawings, we asked them to invite others to interpret their visual stories. This helped participants to develop a shared understanding of one another’s stories and clarify the essence of their own power stories.

There are two simple but powerful practices you can adopt as you hold meetings to help surface issues of power and privilege. Asking “Who else should be here?” at the beginning of the meeting can unlock our awareness of the voices that are in the room and those that are not represented, and helping us to acknowledge power, privilege, and issues of access during the conversation. At the end of a meeting, asking “How did power show up and influence this conversation?” can deepen our understanding of both destructive and constructive power in our organizations. Ultimately, we owe it to ourselves, our organizations, and the communities and causes we serve to take a critical look at power and privilege.

How does power impact your organization’s strategy work?

Shannon Ellis is a CompassPoint Project Director specializing in consulting and training in the areas of finance and strategy. Marissa Tirona is a Senior Project Director responsible for the development and management of several leadership initiatives. In addition, Marissa develops curricula, trains, and consults in the areas of leadership, nonprofit finance, business planning, impact metrics and governance.


Read these other blogs by Shannon Ellis

Read these other blogs by Marissa Tirona

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