Sharing power strengthens NASW

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

As efforts to strengthen NASW’s administrative operational structure have progressed, the subject of power has been getting increasing attention from leaders across the association.

The word power is derived from the Latin verb potere (to be able)—therefore, power may be appropriately defined as that which allows one to take action for reaching goals; the capacity to act, the strength and potency to accomplish something.

Traditionally, theorists of power have distinguished between “power over,” which conveys implicit or explicit dominance from; “power to,” personal empowerment: the opportunity to act more freely within certain context; and “power from,” the ability to resist the power of others by effectively fending off their unwanted demands.

Increasingly, theorists include “power with,” which conveys sharing of power, as a distinct domain of power.

In contrast to power over—with its traditional focus on dominance and coercion, polarity and opposite views, differentials in power, and a posture of suspicion—power with is relational, collaborative and collective. It creates new possibilities from differences that might exist within a group.

Power with emerges from the involved participants, bridges differences, reduces polarity, builds common ground, and grows stronger the more it is put to use.

Power with—rather than seeking control and its potentially calamitous consequences—seeks integration through relationship, openness and an ability to see one’s actions as part of a greater whole.

It is not a relationship of dominance, wherein resources, decisions and evaluations are reserved for the privileged to advance their agendas at the expense of others.

Instead, power with revolves around issues of responsibility for, care of, and inclusion of other people.

Frequently, the debate among NASW leaders has been too reductionist, limiting the discussion to traditional more narrowly defined definitions of power over—focusing heavily on perceived control and coercion—rather than a focus on the sharing of power.

NASW’s modernization plan incorporates power with into the design, reinforcing shared responsibility for operations, finding common ground, and sharing influence.

The plan recognizes the importance of collective wisdom, shared discernment, and reciprocal influence.

The plan better positions leaders, staff and volunteers across the association to bring forth a collective effort that generates greater systemic innovation and enhanced creative synthesis, and overcomes obstacles to working in concert on our shared purpose.

The modernization plan integrates responsibility to a specific chapter or operational unit with responsibility for the entire association, creating a collective sense of mutuality and balance between commitments to a specific chapter or operational unit to collective goals and objectives.

The plan’s governance model, when fully operational, embodies sharing power among leaders across the association by seeing the whole system, forging new operational management behaviors, and leveraging the strength in reciprocal relations.

The governance model encourages collaboration between all chapters and operational units; it allows leaders across the association to speak their concerns, take part in decision-making processes, and meet openly to debate important questions.

The modernization plan pivots on sharing power and working together to inform, influence and create policies, practices and programs—as was exemplified in the yearlong collaborative chapter/national implementation planning process that set the stage for a successful July 1 phase one launch of the initiative.

As NASW forges a new power paradigm—the capacity of chapters and operational units to collectively advance the goals of the entire association—the chapters are still empowered and responsible for decisions that affect NASW’s mission at the local level.

The modernization plan recognizes that power exercised by the local chapter boards is essential for chapters to fulfill the NASW mission. Through the plan, we have strengthened the chapter’s voice in matters that affect the entire association.

Critics have incorrectly described modernization as a centralization of resources and power, when in fact the day-to-day operational decision-making power (and resources) continues at the local level.

What’s centralized is the ultimate fiduciary and legal authority, which results in a more efficient management of these responsibilities.

For instance, rather than completing, filing and expensing for 56 separate audits and 56 separate tax filings, NASW under the reorganization will fill one consolidated IRS form 990 and conduct one integrated annual audit.

In essence, the modernization plan seeks to strengthen NASW’s ability to achieve greater impact for social workers and the profession.

With its underlying emphasis on sharing power, the plan aligns with the principles and spirit of democracy.

Learn more about NASW’s modernization initiative.

Contact Angelo McClain at