Rediscovering the Obvious

Have you ever spent an embarrassingly long time searching in vain for car keys you’re already holding in your hand or for the eyeglasses that turn out to be hiding on your face?  I’m pretty sure I once used the flashlight function on my cell phone to search dark corners of my house…for my cell phone.  I think we all have moments like that.  

Sometimes we find ourselves so close to something, so entwined in it, that it becomes difficult to recognize the obvious.  It’s occurred to me that working toward systemic change can be a little like that.  And as I’m learning more about the work we do here at MeHAF, I’m having the same experience.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent some time as a new Program Associate working with MeHAF grantees in our Healthy Community grant program as they conduct Power Analysis sessions with their members and partners.  Power Analysis is a tool often used in community organizing that helps a group assess the broader landscape in which their efforts exist.  It requires participants to ask themselves a series of important questions:  

  • Who are the key individuals who have the power to make decisions that impact our goals for this project?  
  • Who are the other organizations that might have a stake in our issue (whether they know it or not)?  
  • What unorganized constituencies will be affected by our success or failure?  


Invariably, as a group moves through this process, noting the names of individuals and organizations on a chart that indicates their level of engagement in the issue and their level of power to impact it, seemingly hidden things start to become a little more obvious.  For instance, group members start to connect with the idea that systems are made up of people .  Maybe on some basic level, all of us who work in systems change understand this, but as we start to map out which people influence our issue and what their place in the overall system is, it suddenly becomes a whole lot more concrete.  We start to see that any successful effort to change a system must center on developing, enhancing and managing relationships with the people who comprise and interact with that system.

As the Power Analysis moves forward, a second hidden lesson usually begins to emerge: there are often people or organizations that play a significant role in our issue about whom we know very little.   Through the wisdom of the group, the Power Analysis helps participants identify these key pieces of their puzzle that had been hiding in plain sight- not unlike my ‘lost’ cell phone.  

For instance, at the Power Analysis session I recently helped facilitate at Healthy Northern Kennebec, the coalition was analyzing the landscape surrounding their effort to increase the proportion of healthy, nutritious food that is donated to food banks.  When asked to identify the decision-makers who play a role in this issue, one coalition member brought up food donation managers at the local supermarkets.  A brief discussion revealed that, for the most part, nobody at the table knew the names of these managers or their relative disposition toward the initiative.  Within this fairly large group of smart people, many of whom had been working on food system issues in the area for years, none had a relationship with, or much knowledge of, several key decision-makers in the issue they were working to address.  These managers were the equivalent of the lost car keys that were in our hand all along.

But these Power Analysis workshops didn’t just uncover the hidden obvious for our grantees; it did the same for me in terms of MeHAF’s approach to philanthropy.  Specifically, it made me think about our commitment to do more than grantmaking.  We strive to support our grantees with more than grant dollars by working together with grantees to convene, to build networks, to create opportunities for shared learning, and to draw on experts who can provide technical support and evaluation.  I think I always recognized the importance of this broad approach intellectually, but it’s only on those days where I’m out in the field interacting with smart, inspiring grantees that the singular significance of that phrase ‘more than grantmaking’ really crystalizes in my mind.  How could we expect to direct our funding in the most impactful way if we’re not acting in partnership with those who do the work, listening to them and striving to understand their organizations and strategies, and pitching in where we can to move their efforts along?

And maybe I shouldn’t have needed these Power Analysis sessions to clarify that for me, but sometimes it turns out that your missing glasses were right there on your face the whole time.


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