Applying corporate planning techniques to philanthropic challenges

Jacqueline Copeland-Carson

‘When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.’
Professor John M. Richardson, Jr. of American University, Washington, DC

The present recession has left many philanthropy leaders to ‘wonder what happened’ as the downturn undermined many institutions’ financial footing and clouded their visions of the future. The global economic crisis brings into sharp relief slowly emerging changes in our social, economic and environmental systems. How can we better anticipate, prepare for and shape these dynamic changes to move from survival mode to ways of thinking about the future that strengthen philanthropy’s resilience and effectiveness?

While philanthropy has a long tradition of strategic planning, conventional tools no longer seem to be keeping pace with the speed and complexity of change. New times require new measures better suited to the accelerating pace of change, and there are several alternative strategic planning techniques that philanthropy might consider to enable it to better chart its future.

The state of sector strategic planning

The success of any organization – or the field it is in – depends in large part on its ability to anticipate, adjust to and shape the social, economic and other forces that drive its future. However, for a variety of reasons, philanthropy’s strategic planning is largely limited to 3-5 year plans. These plans often rely on an ‘environmental scan’ that identifies key trends currently affecting the sector without much effort to identify longer-term trends that could affect a foundation’s prospects.

But 3-5 year plans alone are insufficient as philanthropy attempts to re-make itself in this recession. They must be combined with longer-term trends data and planning horizons. With globalization all communities are interconnected, and we are moving into what many leaders in fields as diverse as the corporate sector and the military describe as a VUCA world: an era where heightened volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the norm. It is not just that philanthropy is changing but in a globalized VUCA world, change has an even more accelerated, unpredictable character.

Corporations and some NGOs are creating planning principles and strategies more appropriate to 21st century demands. While no institution – non-profit or corporate – is immune from the downturn, five key techniques could help more to weather the current economic storm and offer more effective philanthropy.

Extended planning horizons

Philanthropy often uses trends from its own field as its frame of reference for its futures planning. But this approach is too insular for the 21st century in which a radically new future can be jumpstarted from any place in the globe. To anticipate future trends, leaders are doing their 3-5 year plans in the context of longer planning timeframes and global data.

The environmental scan is being replaced with ‘megatrends’ data involving long-term, interconnected trends of 10-20 years or even longer. Megatrends are driving forces of social change affecting all countries and sectors. This is not an academic exercise. Multinational companies are using megatrends to anticipate future social behaviour and consumer preferences. The same research can be used to help philanthropic institutions identify emergent socioeconomic dynamics affecting their organizations and constituencies.

From megatrends to forecasts and scenario planning

Megatrends help philanthropy leaders understand the broad societal trends that might affect their future. However, they do not alone necessarily specify the implications for a particular field, such as health or education. Strategic forecasting – anticipating possible future scenarios in a particular field by integrating data to examine intersections among social, economic, demographic, environmental and other megatrends – is becoming a common planning tool. While forecasts are not designed to predict the future, the information enables leaders to make more fully informed short-term strategic and tactical decisions that maximize the chances of being able to achieve their future goals.

Beyond the strategic plan report

Traditional strategic plans in philanthropy result in reports that all too often sit on the shelf until the standard 3-5 year planning period ends and a new one begins. Contemporary planning is creating alternative reporting tools. For example, IFTF, using forecasting planning tools, created a 10-year global philanthropy megatrends map to identify key forces driving the field’s future for the Salzburg Global Seminar. For those without the time to read long reports or study maps, IFTF has created ‘artifacts from the future’ – future-dated newspapers, mocked-up products – to prompt thinking and discussion.

Cultivating futures-thinking skills

The foresight skills needed for a VUCA world offer the capacity to use systematic data and experience about social and organizational change to anticipate and plan for future possible scenarios. To help leaders develop foresight skills, IFTF uses a four-step process in which they identify vexing challenges in their current work as a warning system for future disruptions and potential innovation. Cultivating this capacity to ‘think outside the box’ better enables leaders to anticipate future scenarios and make strategic decisions.

Continuous futures planning systems

Relevant data about future trends can come from multiple sources. A variety of technology-enhanced planning tools are now used to continuously collect and interpret current information from large numbers of people to anticipate potential future trends. These community engagement technologies take participatory planning to another level, using social media similar to Facebook, as well as online games and simulations, to help massive numbers of people imagine how they might respond to possible future scenarios.

IFTF has created new online tools to tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and use ‘crowdsourcing’. These include the Signtific ‘sensing platform’ that enables a growing community of scientists and laypeople to create signals of impending megatrends in science and technology. IFTF has also worked with NGOs, such as United Cerebal Palsy and the American Heart Association, to create online games and simulations, such as Ruby’s Bequest, Aftershock and Superstruct, to engage thousands of people in re-imaging lifestyles, caregiving, emergency response and social change strategies.

Recreating philanthropy futures planning

In economic downturns, organizational development support for philanthropy, and the non-profit sector more broadly, is not usually a priority. But without planning methods better suited to the times, philanthropy will likely be unprepared for a post-recession world. Philanthropy should take the following steps to move from conventional planning to futures thinking strategies:

  • Encourage and fund philanthropy associations, such as the US-based Council on Foundations and European Foundation Centre, to help members apply megatrends, develop scenarios and acquire foresight skills.
  • Promote training for philanthropists in online planning tools, and support NGOs’ efforts to upgrade strategic planning methods more suited to uncertain times.
  • Fund NGOs’ and the broader social sector’s effort to promote more effective futures planning and skills. In addition to grants to help these efforts, making corporate megatrend, scenario planning and foresight tools more accessible to NGOs would dramatically improve society’s capacity.

In addition, strategic scenario planners and forecasting experts should tone down their craft’s jargon, making it more accessible not just to foundations but to NGOs led by grassroots activists and working most closely with disadvantaged people, whose organizations are the most vulnerable to the whims of an increasingly capricious world economy.

This recession is a crisis wrapped in an opportunity to strengthen philanthropy’s resilience and social impact. Philanthropists are by definition optimists. We believe that what we do today can ‘make the future’ better. However, in volatile times optimism alone is insufficient. No one has a panacea for success in this new era and clearly corporate strategies have serious limitations as the unfolding recession shows us. However, this is not the time for philanthropy to continue business as usual. Let us adapt the best tools available to maximize the chances that our future visions will become reality.

Jackie Copeland-Carson is the president of Copeland Carson & Associates, a global social equity and development firm serving philanthropy as well as social activists and entrepreneurs in the US and abroad. Email

For more information

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

Companies, consumers, computers and condoms

Troy Kennedy