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'Future-Fit' Philanthropy: Why Philanthropic Organizations Will Need Foresight to Leave a Lasting Legacy of Change

April 10, 2019

Future_start_gettyimages_olm26250To be considered transformational, any philanthropic organization should aim for lasting impacts that go beyond their immediate beneficiaries. Yet, in the face of what the UK's Ministry of Defense recently characterized as "unprecedented acceleration in the speed of change, driving ever more complex interactions between [diverse] trends," the longer-term future of philanthropy, and the success of individual programs, are at risk as never before.

Philanthropy is already trying to deliver on a hugely ambitious vision of a better future. Taking the Sustainable Development Goals as one marker, this includes, within just over a decade, ending poverty, ending hunger, and delivering universal healthcare. Progress is struggling to match aspirations: the UN has found that globally, hunger is on the rise again and malaria rates are up due to antimicrobial resistance.

With the accelerating pace of change, new trends are set to bring huge opportunities — and threats — often both at once. Two examples: new technologies in the field of synthetic biology, and the fourth Industrial Revolution. Other trends — climate change, demographic shifts, democratic rollback — may be familiar, but their pace, trajectory, and impact remain radically uncertain.

The trends of the coming ten to twenty years have the potential to reverse hard-won progress, distort the outcomes of interventions, radically change the geography and distribution of need, and outpace the philanthropy business model altogether.

This is why we, at the School of International Futures (SOIF) and the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), believe that the philanthropic sector needs a much stronger "foresight mindset" to equip itself to harness the upsides of future change and mitigate the downside risks.

Philanthropic foundations have traditionally given relatively little emphasis to foresight, but philanthropy, in taking on untested or "frontier" areas, is more exposed to future risk than either the private or public sector. Which is why the sector urgently needs a stronger focus on becoming "future-fit": understanding how the trends of the next ten, twenty, and even fifty years will impact its focus, operations, and legitimacy.

Strategic foresight cannot tell us with certainty what the future operating environment will look like, but it can offer a much stronger sense of the range of plausible alternatives; help us navigate uncertainties; and make thinking about the future second nature.

Whatever systemic challenges the sector feels it is facing at present, you can be sure they will deepen in intensity over the next decade. The sector is beginning to address big questions about its future under the auspices of IARAN's thinking on the future of aid; Future Agenda's Future of Philanthropy project; and work on catalytic systems change by Co-Impact. And the questions raised about legitimacy, accountability, and effectiveness by Rob Reich's Just Giving and Anand Giridharadas' Winners Take All have forced a fresh look at ingrained assumptions.

Forward-thinking foundations are already seizing on the potential of strategic foresight — coupled with systems thinkingdesign thinking and social innovation — to help the sector achieve its potential. Omidyar Network, sponsors of the Next Generation Futures Practitioners awards, have set up an Exploration & Future Sensing unit. Other examples include the Health Foundation's emerging work on how to help the complex set of actors in the UK's health and care sector prepare for potential futures, and the Gulbenkian Foundation's Intergenerational Fairness Project.

Here at the School of International Futures and the Social Innovation Exchange we've seen an increased demand for foresight from the sector in the last few years.  And we see a stronger focus on futures as part of a welcome overall commitment to tightening up strategic capability. Many working in philanthropy are natural futures thinkers: ambitious, open-minded, and capable of critically appraising their own agenda and approach.

Given this growing interest, what could a foresight "prescription" for the sector look like?

The four essential steps are:

  1. Analyzing the trends that will shape the future operating environment.
  2. Exploring alternative future scenarios by mapping out the intersection of trends.
  3. Integrating insights about the future into today's decision-making and program design.
  4. Embedding strategic foresight into operations, culture, and organizational mindset.

We are also seeing a growing appetite in the sector to know how to better:

  1. scan upcoming trends;
  2. learn from global practice; and
  3. explore methodological questions such as the link with predictive analytics.

In an already complex world, it can be tempting not to look too hard at what's coming down the track. But by engaging with future complexity and uncertainty, the philanthropic sector can stress-test today's policies and make better strategic choices. Future-fit philanthropy is essential for any organization hoping to leave a legacy as lasting as that of a Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Ford.

Catarina Tully (@CatTullyFOH, @SOIFutures)is co-founder and director of School of International Futures. Louise Pulford (@si_exchange) is executive director of Social Impact Exchange. This post originally appeared on the Alliance magazine website.

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