GHC Conversation 2012 Scenarios

Scenario C: SHIFTING SANDS In this scenario, we worked to envision an environment of limited, disjointed, shallow, gap-filling, Band-Aid approaches to social issues where tight limits, siloed, and traditional approaches to philanthropy continue to dominate. The following graphic (produced by Ken Hubbell) and narrative description begin to tell a story of our images of possibility in this scenario.

A singular economic tsunami or a series of smaller economic disturbances (war, Avian flu, Citizens United Pt. 2) keeps the U.S. and much of North America in a weakened state until the mid-2020s. For many, a widely shared malaise and anxiety (perhaps encompassing an entire generation who has been born into an era of felt-uncertainty and high anxiety) will extend the need for human services at unprecedented levels. However, governments reduce funding for human services and organizations who had been dependent upon government funding become more fragile. Some previously high profile and large institutions in the social sector will fail to adapt and will disappear. This scenario is characterized as a long slog, with many hunkering down for survival, fearing a total collapse. Rampant loss of trust and a short term view fosters a fearful myopia that creates a conducive environment for unethical but charismatic leaders and Tea Party-like movements.

Our dominant value of competitive consumerism lives on at the expense of environmental protection. Despite pervasive product promotion of all things green and environmentally friendly, the majority values the environment only to the extent that it poses no personal conflicts, thereby compounding the issues and challenges which become even more problematic.

Expect a continued acceleration and broad dispersion of communication technology at comparatively affordable prices. Despite this, there is a continued value on personal, real-time connection with people. Personal privacy is significantly compromised, recognizing that all our online data footprints are stored and, potentially, searchable by others. Higher education will experience the bigger reinvention, as technology democratizes learning at a time when economic compression calls for alternatives to the traditional public and private college.

Mega-regions and larger cities will grow. People will live longer—but only those with good health care coverage and the resources to access it. Otherwise, many will have shorter life expectancies by 2030. Boomers will continue to play leadership roles, but in part time, advisory, less authoritative ways. Gen Xers and Millennials will continue to be self-absorbed and me-focused, leaving elder Boomers to face the reality that they must be self- and co-dependent, as they will have little support from younger generations.

We will drift further away from mainline churches and organized religion, yet witness a widespread searching for some spiritual dimension of life. We’ll see a few radicalized religious groups, leading to more social dangers for us all.  Public trust in mainstream media outlets will all but disappear, replaced by infinite “channels/outlets” that align with personal points of view. Civil discourse to solve problems has been replaced by polarization and mean-spirited behavior. People are more willing to challenge organizations/institutions, adding to the pressure on individuals and organizations to be perpetually authentic.

Philanthropy’s future is largely a reaction to economic limits and disturbances forcing the collapse of each sector to “the few” surviving organizations—largely for purposes of efficiency and practical survival. The clash that is produced results from the individual’s loss of trust in charitable organizations.  The tax revolt results in shrinkage of the charitable tax exempt status. Business decisions that result in the creation/combination of non-profit mega-organizations will unintentionally erode the case for big organization philanthropy. While the amount of funds given will remain stable, the local, personally known, smaller NGO will be the beneficiary of that redistributed giving. Grass roots giving will grow, largely responding to a pervasive sense of urgency and Band-Aid approaches. Individual fundraising professionals will constantly have to battle donor fatigue.

GHC Conversation 2012 Scenarios


In this scenario, we worked to envision an environment of limited, disjointed, shallow, gap-filling, Band-Aid approaches to social issues amidst expansive opportunities for innovative philanthropy leveraging strong incentives for collaboration and networks. The following graphic (produced by Ken Hubbell) and narrative description begin to tell a story of our images of possibility in this scenario.

This scenario is highlighted by the mostly unperceived and universally undesired distancing between those in the spotlight—the beacons–(those organizations and individuals capable of attracting the spotlight in philanthropic activities) and the rest. In North America we currently reside in this scenario. This scenario is marked by the belief by a majority that someone in the spotlight will figure it out. Those in the spotlight will mostly believe it too and will continue to make efforts, albeit unwittingly, to reinforce their own belief in themselves and the majority’s view that those “spotlights” will lead us out of the wilderness.

One of the signals of the underlying problem will be right sounding message and seemingly inclusive action by the spotlights, including the convening of gatherings of grassroots people and organizations which will appear to bridge divides. The minority will see the unequal yoking leading to tension between real and perceived partnerships. These well intentioned words and actions will ultimately encourage a hidden but growing dependency across many sectors and geographies.

Due in large part to the increasing social service needs of the boomer generation, the economic malaise persists until 2017 followed by a rebound overall but with a shrinking middle class. People will band together to create their own economies as barter becomes a significant matter of course for a new middle class. Those in the spotlight will be required to focus energy and resources in more obvious places as the number of materially poor increases and their visibility demand a response. Hard choices of where to put resources will result in heavily supported compliant populations and communities with completely neglected sectors and geographies, often those that are most difficult to reach or work with. Compounding this will be changes in tax provisions for charitable contributions pitting government against charitable organizations in some circles regarding who has greater impact for the dollar.

As in all the scenarios, the steady availability of technology plays a huge role. In this scenario there is great appeal for every “bright, shiny object.” The majority of people will seek to maintain the status quo and the control of outcomes. Some value the path of least resistance, seeking and valuing the paternal leader to make the tough decisions. The allure of widely adopted “best practices” continues (which is only a deflection of real responsibility). For many, much of these scenario decades finds people feeling comfortably numb—deluding themselves into thinking that we’re doing the most relevant and important work because we’re in pursuit of “best practices,” which is an intrinsically historical—rather than future leaning—view.

This will be an era of greater grassroots giving, in part fueled by accessible mobile technology and generational lifestyle choices. Peer-driven, largely unstructured impulses for very targeted fundraising will become common. Government support would reward the beacons at the expense of the also-rans. “Spotlight” organizations will continue to seek to evoke constituent loyalty; whereas small donors (and shadow organizations) will generate interest, but little organizational loyalty. “It’s the result that matters, not the entry point.”

GHC Conversation 2012 Scenarios


In this scenario, we worked to envision a strong, robust future where there will be deep, systemic, long-term responses to pressing social issues amidst expansive opportunities for innovative philanthropy leveraging strong incentives for collaboration and networks. The following graphic (produced by Ken Hubbell) and narrative description begin to tell a story of our images of possibility in this scenario.

Scenario A – Elevated Intention

Near universal access to technology enhances awareness, promulgates engagement, and “levels the playing field.” What’s been out of sight can’t be kept from coming in to sight. More people have access to more knowledge; consequently, change occurs more quickly. A widely enhanced consciousness—a broad psychological kinship—acts as a catalyst for change. Levels of institutional trust are high. Government is an equal partner with the public and private sectors, resulting in significant and lasting responses to a wide range of social issues. Boomers have largely passed the torch to Millennials, who have been groomed for leadership. Family continues to be redefined, reflected in extended “families of choice.” At a macro level, the great emerging promise will create a groundswell of hope. Considerably growing numbers of stakeholders are at the table and engaged in collective problem solving around social issues and collective impact is widely embraced.

As for philanthropy, it will be alive and well, but not in the traditional sense or forms of the rich giving to the poor. Shared accountability will increasingly become the norm. People will contribute—and be valued for contributing—what they can, where they can, and how they can in the form of time, money, expertise, volunteer time, etc. Expect to see less concentration of money and, potentially, the disappearance of currency as we know it. Power relationships shift in this scenario, resulting in more true and equal partners, producing far better and more lasting results. Band-Aid solutions and responses will still be necessary here, but they won’t be the majority expression of philanthropic spirit.

Well short of nirvana, some danger signs remain in this scenario. Disaffected groups will be found in hackers, gangs, cartels, and other exclusive communities.  Those who are deeply resistant to change and/or who are the most disenfranchised will reap far fewer benefits from the collective improvements in this scenario.

GHC Conversation 2011 Synthesis

Fourteen social sector and philanthropy executives gathered on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in late March 2011 for our third Conversation. We accepted as the platform for our thinking this year the notion of learning from the future: the personal, organizational, community, and societal interrelationships that will most deeply shape the practice and promise of philanthropy in the year 2030.

As in previous years, participants were asked in advance to write and submit an original essay on one aspect of what they believe we must learn from the future. Each essay coaxed the author out of his/her current “moment” and forced a short walk with uncertainty. This step was essential to moving participants away from techniques and models and more toward personal “openings.” Beyond that, the essays jump-started our conversation because of their collective range and depth.

Unlike the mood and tenor of Conversation 2010, the overarching sense of our collective thinking and spirits this year was that everything we need is here. Over four days, our formal and informal exchanges took on many frames. Philanthropy, of course, was often a starting point for discussion—yet we went deeper than that. Organizational adaptation was another constant—yet we went deeper than that. We held up the natural tensions of wanting to drive toward answers and solutions, only to come gently back to several recurring themes of our discussion, each of which helped us conceptualize what we must do to learn from the future, to truly understand the depth of the idea of interrelationship, and to see with new eyes the practice and promise of philanthropy. Inevitably, no summary adequately conveys the scope and depth of the gathering. I will post here in the coming days key highlights of this Conversation.