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


Catarina Tully and Louise Pulford


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. But that 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. 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.

With the accelerating pace of change, new trends are set to bring huge opportunities and threats, often both at once. Two examples? New technology in synthetic biology, and the fourth industrial revolution. Other trends may feel familiar, but their pace, trajectory and impacts remain radically uncertain: climate change, demographic shifts, democratic rollback.

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 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 risks.

Philanthropic foundations have traditionally given relatively little emphasis to foresight, but philanthropy is more exposed to future risk than the private or public sectors, in taking on untested or ‘frontier’ areas. 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.

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 make thinking about the future second-nature.

Whatever systemic challenges the sector feels it faces at present, their intensity will deepen 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. 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.

Forward-thinking foundations are already seizing on the potential of strategic foresight – coupled with systems thinking, design 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 far-sighted examples include the Health Foundation’s emerging work on how to help the complex set of actors in the UK health and care sector prepare for potential futures, and the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Intergenerational Fairness Project.

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 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 approach.

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

The four essential steps are:

  1. Analysing 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 programme design.
  4. Embedding strategic foresight into operations, culture and organisational mindset.

We are seeing appetite in the sector to know 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 forthcoming roundtables on foresight for philanthropy.

In an already complex world, it can be tempting not to look at further complications 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 organisation hoping to leave a legacy as lasting as that of a Carnegie, Rockefeller or Ford.

Catarina Tully is Co-Founder and Director of SOIF @CatTullyFOH @SOIFutures

Louise Pulford is Executive Director of SIX @si_exchange

Tagged in: Next Philanthropy

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