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7 things you need to speak truth to power

Financial mismanagement. Lay-offs of local and international staff. Inappropriate conduct by leadership. Finally, a visit planned from headquarters to see what’s going on. What do you do?

A superior continues to make passes at you. You find out you’re paid less than someone doing your exact same job. Someone takes undue credit for work you did.

The rules don’t work for us? Guess we have to stand up for ourselves and change those rules. This will not happen by letting power go unchecked or unchallenged, on a personal or a sectoral level.

Telling a donor or a boss to go fly a kite is an intimidating experience, but there is a point when we have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable we may be or how much power someone else has.

From my experience, here are seven things that can make these encounters a little less frightening.

1)   Use of the powerful’s own language and tactics. Like it or not, sometime we’ll have to “play the game” in order to get the access to change the rules. I tend to favor infiltration and influence. But the words of a friend and fellow writer often also ring in my ear, “Sometimes, you also have to also scream and yell to get a seat at the table.”

2)   Consideration of the counter-argument. Anticipate how people may object to what you are saying. If you can, by acknowledging their perspective, you may “head them off at the pass” and defuse their opposition.

3)   Your peeps. I tend the tribe as a source of my power. Allies ground me, validate me, are friendly adversaries, help lick my wounds, and share their own tales of speaking truth to power. Invaluable.

4)   An ever-thickening, yet still permeable skin. When speaking truth to power, you will receive criticism yourself. Some of it will need to bounce right off your exterior. Some of it will be necessary to reflect upon and move you to the next level.

5)   A new definition of vulnerability. Powerlessness is only a perception. But I find that if I can acknowledge my own vulnerability, I can find a more secure place from which to advocate. In fact, my vulnerability emboldens me in a way, knowing that push-backs are necessary.

6)   A back-up plan. Whistleblowers often have to start anew. It’s the price they pay for speaking truth to power. But personal risk is often over-estimated. Bureaucracies and organizations benefit from our fear of losing our jobs. But we are not our organizations and it is foolish to equate income with security.

7)   Non-attachment to outcomes. You win some. You lose some. Real change is due to many factors outside of your control. So keep the long arc of justice in mind and let it rip anyway.

Why is it important for people to speak their truths within their organizations and within global development circles?

Because if you haven’t noticed, it is all about power.

So let her rip.


A version of this post first appeared on the Women Working in Aid and Development blog and then on

[New on] "These young people were so hungry, after only a week among development professionals in Washington DC, for an open and real conversation about development work!"

For those who may ignore the power dimensions of donor relationships…

For those who may ignore the power dimensions of donor relationships…

The power of no

Imagine not being able to turn away from a problem that you see in this world. You are compelled by a sense of responsibility, passion, and the audacity to believe that you can do something about that problem. You have decided to take the leap and start an organization, an initiative, or a social enterprise.

To do so, you of course need resources. You don’t have them. You have to ask those with money to invest in you.

Imagine sitting across the table from a potential donor, attempting to make your “pitch.” And this person, who may have the power to determine your potential success, will not even look you in the eye. It seems, as if to him, being anywhere else in the world would be better than sitting across from you.

At first you assume that you obviously need to make your case more effectively, that somehow your message is not getting across. You talk faster, given his apparent impatience. You add more detail in your panic. Are you even making sense? You don’t know as the nervousness mounts. Needless to say, the meeting ends poorly.

But eventually, your anxiety turns to anger. You think, why in the hell did this guy waste your time, and more importantly perhaps, your emotional energy? He made you doubt yourself. Why did he even agree to a meeting in the first place?

He took the meeting because he was not yet mature enough as an “impact investor” to have learned the power of “no.”

(And yes, this is unfortunately based on a colleague’s actual experience at a recent conference.)


SayingNoWhen I worked for a family foundation, I became very grounded in “no” and the importance of it. We were there to serve community leaders in Africa who were in the process of organizing at the grassroots level. To submit a proposal, written in a second or third language, often making a trip to another town to the internet café to send it to us, deserved a response—a dignified one, even if it was no.

As a grant seeker, I have also thought a lot about how to ask for money in a dignified way, i.e. not accosting donors in the toilet. (And yes, I also personally overheard such an interaction across the stalls at this same conference.) When I ask for money, I have come to learn that I am inviting people to join in, not to inject resources. It’s an important distinction, as it sets the tone for partnerships. Those focused only on “returns” are not going to be the right partner for me.

If this were a dating scenario, the man who only wants, eh hem, one thing is not good relationship material. Right ladies? But as in dating, it’s sometimes hard not to take a “no” personally, especially if it’s delivered by someone who will not even meet your gaze. Also, the longer you string people along, the more difficult the “no” will be. We just hope the jerks make us stronger and prepare us for the right one.

So my message to funders is simple. What other people are doing to make their contribution to the world will often not fit with your priorities or your interests. If you know the answer is “no”, offer it quickly and gracefully. Respect the vulnerability, but also the resilience, of those doing the asking. Don’t always assume that you are that important.

Funders can say ‘yes’, or ‘no’ so that grant applicants understand the rationale, feel that they’ve been treated fairly, and can make realistic plans about their next steps. This publication by GrantCraft, Saying Yes/Saying No: Strengthening Your Decision-Giving Skills, offers more great advice.

Funders, don’t pour water on the fires that people are working hard to build. If you don’t have the wood or kindling to give, just let the change-makers get on with collecting it elsewhere.


This post originally appeared at:


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How are international aid projects like U.S. presidential elections?

Yes We Can: The campaign/proposal writing

You have to get lots of people involved. In fact, the more people who share your vision, the better. You tell the voters/donors what they want to hear. Persuasion and hyperbole can be more important than substance. The popular vote/buy-in of the people served may be irrelevant in the end. You’re happy (though thoroughly exhausted) when the campaign is over/proposal is submitted, but the hard work is yet to come.

Yes We Are: Governing/project implementation

What you face now is inevitably more complicated than what you portrayed in the campaign/proposal. With everyone wanting something from you, there are many competing priorities and it’s not always clear which is the best decision. Are there ever enough resources? Despite the election promises/logframe, the arcane and dysfunctional aspects of the system(s) in which we operate often get in our way.

Yes We Did: Seeking reelection/report writing

Despite what you did or did not accomplish, ultimately people’s perceptions will determine if you are considered successful or not. You highlight what you accomplished and ensure there’s a good explanation for what you didn’t. After four years, you may have a better idea of what you’re doing, but a rapidly changing reality means no election/project can ever be the same.

Most importantly, if you don’t inspire people to believe that a brighter future is possible for everyone, you might as well go home.



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