Philanthropy's Role in Creating Tomorrow

Philanthropy's Role in Creating Tomorrow

Change in the world and our communities is happening at breathtaking speed. This accelerating rate of change makes the challenging work of doing good even more difficult. Foundations are trying to make the world a better place, but we are often using yesterday's information to do so.

When deciding what we will fund next year, we look at six-month-old grant applications, year-old grant reports, and six-year-old census data. But these methods are no longer up to the task. The Institute for the Future held a wonderful training last fall on the future of philanthropy in which the guiding question was: "Foundations will exist in ten years, but will they be relevant?"

Relevancy is not a question that foundations are used to asking themselves. But as we watch Mark Zuckerberg avoid the traditional structure of a foundation and, instead, opt to set up an LLC for his community impact work, it makes many of us pause and ask, "How do our institutions, which look almost the same as they did in Andrew Carnegie's time, need to adapt to meet the challenges of tomorrow?" That question has led me to an interest in futurism and interviewing leaders who are thinking differently about making the world a better place — individuals like Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Unite, Dr. Eric Jolly from Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, StartUp Box founder Majora Carter, and Obi Felten of Google X.

Based on these conversations, I believe it is our responsibility, as philanthropic leaders, to learn the skills needed to understand and create the future we want for our communities. And to that end, I’ve developed a three-step process to help philanthropic leaders escape from the busy-ness of today to create the better world of tomorrow.

Step One: Stop Loving the Problem. Those of us in philanthropy spend a lot of time studying the problems we seek to address. Knowing the scope of an issue is helpful, but it is not an end in itself. It is counterproductive to spend so much time and mental energy on understanding what isn't working. Instead of thinking more deeply about a problem, think of what the problem would look like if it was actually solved. It might bring you to new solutions.

Step Two: Look. You can't be flexible only when change comes; you need to anticipate change and prepare for it. How do you do this? Set aside 5 percent of your time each week — preferably in a single two-hour block — to think about what the issues or communities you care about will look like five, twenty, and even fifty years in the future. Pay attention to trends in your field and innovations outside your field that may have an impact. TED Talks are a wonderful resource for this.

Step Three: Go. Across many of the issues that our philanthropic organizations fund, we are seeing worse outcomes for children and communities. It's clear in many cases that our current methods aren't working, but we still seem to have a fear of trying something unproven. While this may feel counterintuitive, as a field we need to learn to fail faster. That means learning how to quickly prototype, pilot, and implement new ideas and ways of working on the issues we care about (see Step Two: Look). This will enable us, in turn, to more quickly figure out what does and doesn't work.

Then you need to share what you’ve learned with the field — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can't be afraid of failure; it is the only way we will get to new, transformative solutions.

Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." So let's get started!

Trista Harris is a philanthropic futurist and the president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, an organization that works actively to expand and strengthen a vibrant community of diverse grantmakers who individually and collectively advance the common good. MCF members represent three-quarters of all grantmaking in the state, awarding more than $1 billion annually. Follow Trista on Twitter at @TristaHarris.