Transformative Power Models: What Changing Power Paradigms Mean for Corporate Giving & Volunteering Programs

February 24, 2015 benevity

We posted this article earlier at the Charities@Work Blog.

Everyone talks endlessly about the transformational aspects of technology and the web and mobile, and it’s all of course true. But up above that – or perhaps because of it – there is a new power hierarchy in the world. If power is simply defined as “the ability to produce intended effects”, understanding these power models is actually pretty important if we want to achieve business or social impact goals. In an interesting article in December’s Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms discuss “How to Harness New Power”. We think this has a ton of relevance to engagement theory and social responsibility programs.

In the old paradigm, power is described as a currency held by a few: closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. ‘Old Power’ is enabled by what people or organizations know or control that nobody else does – once Old Power models lose that, they lose their advantage.

New Power is more like a current: made by many, open, participatory and peer-driven. It is not there to be hoarded, but rather channeled. New Power models (and we see them everywhere) are enabled by peer coordination and the power of the crowd. They tap into people’s growing capacity and desire to participate in ways that go beyond passive consumption.

We need to think about some of these things in the context of what we’re trying to achieve with corporate giving and volunteering programs. 

Choosing, Producing & Co-Ownership: The Engagement Scale

Heimans and Timms consider this New Power model as a scale of participation, where passive consumption is the lowest level of engagement. People want to share, shape, crowdfund, co-create and even co-own outcomes. You can see these elements at work when you think of popular peer communities like Etsy, AirBnB, or Wikipedia. Buying or booking something takes on a new dimension through these communities because involvement rapidly becomes participatory. NikeID  – where consumers design their own shoes – has very quickly become a significant part of Nike’s online revenues.

Source: “How to Harness New Power”, Harvard Business Review, December 2014

We need to think about these things – about sharing, shaping, co-funding, producing & co-owning – as we conceive and execute corporate giving and volunteering programs. These elements represent steps toward deeper commitment or engagement, and are therefore crucial elements to be considered when thinking about how to engage employees, consumers and other stakeholders in community investment initiatives.  Is your current program likely to appeal to individuals who seek these elements?

As we climb the scale, people go beyond supporting, sharing and funding other people’s efforts, and actively contribute their own. They become YouTube creators, Etsy artisans, and Linux open-source software developers. Their collaborative energy is very powerful and very productive – and it flows from a model that is catalyzed by empowerment, sharing, and transparency (elements that have not always been present in conventional corporate giving programs).  It also requires technology that can facilitate this type of user-centric interaction, and a digital pledge form isn’t going to get you there.

What everyone engaging in New Power – particularly those under 30 (which is incidentally more than half the world’s population) share is a common appetite to participate in the things that impact them and the broader landscape.  No longer content to ‘tick the box’, people increasingly expect to actively shape and create many aspects of their lives – including the Good they do in the world.

New Power Expectations for Doing Good

We can observe some of these things in action.  When given the option, 80% of consumers gave to charities of their own choice, versus those recommended by a brand – and 96% gave to a local organization over a national organization. (Source:  This growing focus on localization and personalization is a hallmark of successful employee giving programs, as well.  People want to create and share content, include friends and family, build deep relationships with the NPO’s they embrace.  This behavior reflects the New Power paradigm –rather than simply going along with someone else’s decision, people want an active role in when, where, what and how they give, and most importantly, to whom they give.

In our own adventures at Benevity we’ve been able to observe the real impact on participation that occurs when so called ‘new power’ expectations are nurtured –and also when they’re stymied. Recently, we compared participation rates across all of our different clients’ workplace giving programs. We found that people who were involved in true open-choice programs were 5 times more likely to participate than people in programs that restricted charity choice. The participation metrics go up further when programs include both volunteering and giving, and further still in relation to matching budgets and ‘dollars for doers’ rewards. 

Giving is personal, and empowered giving is much more powerful than corporate mandated arm-twisting.

None of this is surprising, given what we know about people’s eagerness to take active roles in everything they do. All the data supports these trends, yet governments and many large corporations still behave as if the old “command and control” practices will win the day.  We can perhaps put these people in the same category as those that thought that ATMs would never take off because people wanted to deal with their local bank teller, or those that thought AirBnB and Uber dumb ideas.

Balancing the Business Needs – A Hybrid Approach

This new paradigm is not necessarily an all or nothing proposition: we’re not suggesting that the Crowd should make every decision, or that there isn’t a place for companies to have strategic business goals around community investment beyond the individual desires of their employees. What we can do most productively is examine what we’re doing with workplace giving and volunteering through a broader lens. That is why we suggest a hybrid ethos for Goodness Programs: empower broad choice but create strategic bias towards the causes, pillars, events and impact that make the most sense. Old power or new, giving money away intelligently is a difficult job.

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