Choice, Voice, Power, Control: The Power of Vision

Thanks to the wisdom and compassion of Melinda Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken a powerful stand for gender equality, making it the centerpiece of their vast global health and development initiatives.

This spring, the Foundation unveiled its strategy statement and white paper on gender equality. Acknowledging missed opportunities and harm done by top down and simplistic technical approaches to problem solving, they pledged to put people, and specifically the empowerment of women and girls at the center of their global investment strategy.

The Foundation spent the last several years developing a framework for their approach to gender equity, in particular their notion of “empowerment.” That word – empowerment – is so fraught. It can imply an unequal relationship in which power is conferred from on high to the lowly — most unsavory and loaded.

For this reason, many are loath to utter the term “empowerment,” or to use it in their communications, preferring less graceful but more careful phrasing of power centered in the beneficiary. Hence, when this word empowerment came up in the announcement of the Foundation’s gender-equity emphasis, it was quickly qualified, and by that, I mean it was backed up by a rigorous process of inquiry.

Working with an international team based in The Netherlands called KIT Gender, the Gates Foundation reviewed 115 empowerment models from around the world. After, an extensive and inclusive process, they devised the following definition:

“Empowerment of women and girls is the expansion of choice and strengthening of voice through the transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control over their lives and futures. It is both a process and an outcome (page 13).


Choice. Voice. Power. Control.

These words spark conversation. Certainly they have already. As the focal point of billions of dollars in global health and development investment, they will transform our planet and change the trajectory of millions of people’s lives in a short time. There is no quantifying that potential – the leaders born, the political systems reshaped, the doctors, surgeons, lawyers, social change agents, economic and scientific innovators who emerge. On the most fundamental level, women and babies will cease dying for reasons they should not -– all because of the empowerment, as defined here, of women and girls.

This statement of empowerment is an example of a powerful vision.

Most visions are terrible. A great vision gives you goose bumps. It is not neutral or easy. It is a challenge to the world to change. These are the only kinds of visions we remember. They serve, on their own, as instruments of change.

  • Liberty and justice for all
  • Peace on earth
  • Equal pay for equal work

And now, I challenge you. Chances are, your organization is playing way too small. Go bigger! Your vision can go beyond your direct sphere of influence. A great vision has the power to call to action not only your specific constituents, but all people and organizations of good will who didn’t know they care, but now do.

Our organizations are not islands, they are platforms for influencing the conversation, and for shaping what people are talking about. So go big. Lead. Change the conversation. Change the world.

What’s your vision?

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

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Copyright July 2017