Making philanthropy ready for the future


The philanthropy sector has traditionally paid little attention to foresight, but the sector urgently needs a stronger focus on becoming ‘future-fit’: understanding how the trends of the next 10, 20 and even 50 years will impact its focus, operations and legitimacy. 

Following our article on future-fit philanthropy, the School of International Futures (SOIF) is hosting a series of roundtable discussions to get to grips with the issue of philanthropy can use strategic foresight to make transformative social change. Our first roundtable is summaried here. The second one was hosted by Mott MacDonald in July.

There’s a detailed account of the second roundtable on Medium. This post captures some of the highlights.

The opportunity

Participants noted governments and other institutions were retrenching in the face of complexity and uncertainty, which created an opportunity for philanthropic actors to step into the gap. They could convene the system, facilitate conversations about transformative change, and take more assertive steps towards achieving the SDGs.

From an organisational perspective, the benefits of foresight were seen as manifold. A foresight approach could help to create organisational agility and greater resilience, and make organisations less inward-looking.

Facilitating change

There’s a growing polarisation in the sector between more conservative approaches to operating, and newer, more disruptive approaches to philanthropy driven by technological innovation. The former risks missing out on emerging possibilities. The latter risks over-promising on solutions. The two worldviews need to be brought together – foresight might help with this, by setting a future-facing direction for philanthropy as a sector.

The barriers

The challenges include a lack of strategic patience in many organisations. There is business pressure to show quick and tangible results, or risk losing leadership support or funding. It is hard to build the business case for foresight, and to measure the impact of change within complex systems. Success stories are often measured in dollar signs and extensive partnerships. This challenge is not insurmountable: there are studies showing that longitudinal strategies pay off well in the long-term. 

Overcoming doubt

Stakeholder commitment was seen as another challenge to organisational foresight. Leaders need reassurance that peers are trying similar approaches – they want to be innovative, but not pioneers. Leaders have also been burnt previously by initiatives that under-delivered on their promise (e.g social impact bonds).

This underlined the importance of collaborating across organisations – creating the assurance of a movement. Collaboration was also seen to be a logical consequence of applying a truly systems lens to the sector. 

Looking ahead

The group finished by aligning around a clear area for further exploration: if collaboration and conversation between different stakeholders is key for success, how do we facilitate and enable this as a sector and as advisors?

Foresight methodologies can provide both space and permission to think disruptively, to challenge the official view of the future, and to bring different perspectives together around a common goal. This also invites participation from traditionally under-heard voices (e.g future generations, North-South dialogue) to ensure broader insights and accountability.

Next steps include curating spaces focused on a specific issue, where the value of foresight can be demonstrated, new impact indicators can be developed, and expertise or tools can be experimented with safely. 

To join the conversation or for more information on SOIF’s work in the foresight and philanthropy space, please contact Cat Tully.