Future-fit philanthropy: why philanthropic organisations will need foresight to leave lasting legacies of change

This short paper is the result of a conversation with Louise Pulford from the Social Innovation Exchange (Six), and inspired by Jon Huggett on how philanthropists can, and are, harnessing foresight to drive transformational change. This is both an opportunity and an imperative as we move into an increasingly turbulent future.

SOIF has been following developments in this topic over the past few years. We see much potential in supporting the dialogue, in particular in the lead up to the 2020 SDG reviews, that we have selected it as one of the topics for this year’s SOIF2019 retreat.

You can read a short version of this paper in Alliance Magazine.

All philanthropic organisations exist to change the world, or at least a part of it. They are distinguished by their level of ambition – and by their optimism that the future can be made better than the present for their beneficiaries. But that ambition makes them particularly susceptible to the radical uncertainties of our fast-changing world.

To be considered transformational, any philanthropic organisation should aim for lasting impacts that go well beyond their immediate beneficiaries. Yet the longer-term future of philanthropy, and the success of individual programmes, are at risk as never before in the face of what the UK’s Ministry of Defence recently characterised as ‘unprecedented acceleration in the speed of change, driving ever more complex interactions between [diverse] trends’.

Philanthropy is already trying to deliver on a hugely ambitious vision of a better future
to leave no-one behind for the 21 st century. 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 up due to antimicrobial resistance.

And of course, the operating environment is far from static. With the accelerating pace of change in the coming decades, new trends are set to bring huge opportunities and threats, often both at the same time. To take two examples:

Other trends may feel familiar – even old news – through repetition, but their pace, trajectory and impacts remain radically uncertain: climate change, demographic shifts, technological change, democratic rollback, a new world order.

The trends of the coming 10-20 years have the potential to reverse hard-won progress, distort the outcomes of interventions, radically change the geography and distribution of need, and – more fundamentally – outpace the traditional business model of philanthropy altogether. The unprecedented pace of change poses a profound challenge to philanthropies fighting to keep their legacies relevant for the 21 st century.

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 become truly future-fit. We cannot continue with business as usual.

Philanthropic foundations have traditionally given relatively little emphasis or resource to strategic foresight, compared to the private sector. But philanthropy is more exposed to future risk than the private or public sectors, in that it takes on risky, untested or ‘frontier’ areas. The rise of the new global ‘millennial philanthropic generation’ and an exponential rise in philanthropy in India and China present new challenges and opportunities within the sector itself. Whether the scope of intervention is global, national or local, philanthropy urgently needs a stronger focus on the future to equip itself to harness the potential upsides of future changes and mitigate the looming risks.

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 navigate uncertainties and manage risk; and make thinking about the future an integral part of the mindset of an organisation – or a sector as a whole.

Conversely, shutting off foresight risks producing brittle policies and programmes, susceptible to failure and reversal in the face of change. A blinkered sector will miss emergent opportunities – and risk being blindsided by future threats and shocks.

Whatever systemic challenges the sector feels it faces at present – and the debates around that are very much live – their intensity will deepen over the next decade. For many working in the field, the questions raised about legitimacy, accountability and effectiveness by Rob Reich’s ‘Just Giving’ and Anand Giridharadas’ ‘Winners Take All’ have already forced a fresh look at ingrained assumptions. The sector is beginning to address some big questions about its future under the auspices of IIARAN’s thinking on the future of aid – which concludes that “humanitarian organisations will need to adapt their structure, operations and values, to remain relevant and successful by 2030”; through Future Agenda’s  Future of Philanthropy project; and through work on more collaborative, catalytic systems change by Co-Impact and others.

Forward-thinking foundations and thinkers are already seizing on the potential of strategic foresight – coupled with systems thinking, design thinking and social innovation – to help the sector better achieve its transformational potential. This increased focus on how to not just do the right thing but to do it well is urgently needed to make philanthropy better prepared for an uncertain future in which it will be asked to do more than ever, with governments and the private sector often increasingly risk-averse and less willing to take a big-picture approach.

Here at the School of International Futures (SOIF) and the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) we’ve seen an increased demand for foresight from the sector in the last few years. We see a stronger focus on futures as part and parcel of a welcome overall commitment to tightening up strategic capability in the sector. Many of those drawn to working in philanthropy are natural futures thinkers: ambitious, open-minded and capable of critically appraising their own approach or institution. Omidyar Network, for example, sponsor of the Next Generation Futures Practitioners awards, have been exploring the intersection of design/systems thinking and futures practice, setting up an Exploration & Future Sensing unit to investigate provocative, emergent issues.

Given this flourishing interest, what could a foresight ‘prescription’ for the sector look like?

Given this flourishing interest, what could a foresight ‘prescription’ for the philanthropic sector to engage with the future in a more systematic way look like? The four essential steps are:

  1. Analysing the trends and issues that will shape their future operating environment; scanning the horizon for early warning signs, ‘wild cards’, ‘weak signals’ and potential shocks.
  2. Exploring alternative future scenarios, by mapping out the intersection of multiple complex trends.
  3. Looking at the implications (the ‘so what’) for today’s operations; integrating insights about the future into today’s decision-making and programme design.
  4. Integrating strategic foresight into operations, culture and organisational mindset, making it an integral and iterative approach instead of a glitzy one-off exercise. Far-sighted examples of this include the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Intergenerational Fairness Project, which seeks to integrate the interests of future generations into current decision-making processes.

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

  1. Within organisations, become ‘futures literate’: better understanding the intervention points that will make a difference in the future; designing programmes that are more resilient to alternative scenarios; identifying stakeholders who will help advance longer-term goals. The OECD Development Assistance Committee recently set up a foresight unit for the first time – to build better development cooperation for the future.
  2.  Across the sector, achieve common outcomes: such as those identified in the 2018 collaborative scenarios work between MIT, FutureEarth and the ClimateWorks Foundation, which aims to help the world’s philanthropists tackle climate change. The scenarios exercise drew on insights from 154 global stakeholders, many outside the classic ‘expert’ community, and the resulting five scenarios are now regularly used by ClimateWorks and others to “stress-test strategies and programmes against a range of scenarios” and to assess “emerging trends that … may affect future efforts at climate action”.
  3.  Drive sectoral change: such as the Health Foundation’s emerging work looking at how to support the complex set of actors in the UK health and care sector to prepare for potential futures.

We firmly believe that the mindset shift towards futures-thinking needs to happen at the level of the sector as a whole. Philanthropy as a sector needs to look ahead to better understand how the trends of the next 10, 20 and even 50 years will impact its focus, operations and legitimacy. We are seeing a high appetite in the sector to learn more about how to better:

  1. Scan upcoming trends
  2. Learn from global practice
  3. Explore methodological questions such as the link with predictive analytics.

SIX and SOIF will explore these themes in roundtables on how philanthropists can harness strategic foresight to create transformative social change, leading on to a wider exploration at the SOIF2019 retreat this summer.