Soft Power and the New Face of Philanthropy

One of my most memorable moments from college was when I sat in a sea of more than 500 college students in PoliSci 101. From the back of the auditorium, a very small man stood up on stage speaking to all of us about the strength of the U.S. president as “soft power.” According to Joseph Nye of Harvard University, the man who coined the term, it is “the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force, or give money as a means of persuasion.”

Less than five years later, I sat in Midwood, Brooklyn, working with the Pakistani immigrant community to tackle their high school graduation rate, adult literacy, and the family economic challenges they faced. Sitting around a table with the Midwood and Flatbush Pakistani community leaders, the principal, and the administration of the school, it occurred to me: If the U.S. president’s greatest power is in fact “soft power”—the ability to attract and influence a change—there was no way I could coerce this group to leave their individual agendas behind and commit to working together with a common agenda.

After two months of conversations, I completed my report about the challenges in this particular Pakistani community and the lack of synergy that existed between the public schools and the organization trying to move the needle on the issues.

I doubt I am even lucky enough to have this report collecting dust on a shelf or the bottom of a drawer in a random file cabinet somewhere in Brooklyn. The lessons I learned from it were more valuable than the report itself. I better understood just how influential “soft power” can be and how, without it, a community will stay stagnant in the progress they are trying to make.

As philanthropy begins to reinvent itself, the field should look at what types of power it holds and which is truly the most effective. Money only lasts for so long. Coercing an organization or community into an agenda has often proven ineffective throughout history. “Soft power” can create a movement. And at the end of the day, to create measurable lasting change, the people, the organizations, and the communities involved must believe in it.

Shanee Helfer is manager of community foundations at the Council on Foundations.

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