Learning From the Future

I recently determined the framework for our upcoming GHC Conversation 2011:

Learning From the Future:
The personal, organizational, community, and societal
interrelationships that will most deeply shape the
practice and promise of philanthropy
in 2030.

Personally, I have had a life-long interest in history. Once reading Strauss and Howe’s 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069, I became equally interested in the arc of generational personalities. My curiosity about that generational behavior decades from now captured a good bit of my thinking. Still does. Then, when my brother Ken introduced me to the writing of C. Otto Scharmer, the grip of the future became even tighter. In Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (2009), Scharmer presents the results of more than a decade of his thinking about the two sources of learning—from the experiences of the past and learning from the future as it emerges. He labels the act of learning and operating from the future as it emerges “presencing,” which he defines as sensing, tuning in, and acting from one’s highest future potential—the future that depends on us to bring it into being. He presents the reader with a question that fueled his thinking and reflection for more than a decade: “How can we act from the future that is seeking to emerge, and how can we access, activate, and enact the deeper layers of the social field?” (Theory U, 2009, p.8).

One might be drawn to recraft his question as “can we act…” or “should we act…” or in some other way. However one comes at his question, I am firmly persuaded of its importance especially when thinking about the long catalytic role of philanthropy and imagining its presence in the year 2030. What is the future that is waiting to emerge and dependent upon us to bring it into being? Can we get far enough removed from the economic and psychological funk of the past couple years to allow ourselves to look around a distant corner? Will we demand of ourselves that we see connections everywhere—among peoples, among ideas, among organizations—that carry the spark of something heretofore unimagined?

Interrelationships – Much of the contemporary practice of philanthropy (both the seeking of dollars and the granting of dollars) happens largely in silos, with organizations and individuals predominantly acting alone. Certainly there is evidence to the contrary, but I believe it exists in the minority. Individuals must come to think with a whole new mind*, recognizing the long-revered power of our left brain hemispheres while acknowledging the huge potential when fully engaged with our right brain hemispheres. Similarly, organizations must come to adopt a whole systems view to see a truly healthy, robust environment in which their organization can contribute—rather than solely looking to meet their own needs. In what ways can these interrelationships be pursued, with philanthropy as the fuel and the partner? Should these interrelationships be pursued if it means diminishing by even a fraction the human and financial resources that may otherwise flow to this one organization? Can personal, organizational, community, and societal relationships manifest themselves in the future in ways that produce more good in the world?

The practice and the promise of philanthropy – Finally, notwithstanding my love of alliteration, there seems something both magical and commonsensical about imaging a future that blends practice and promise more intentionally and for more impact. What might that future look like in 2030? To achieve that highest and best outcome, what will your organization be called upon to be or do differently?

*See Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind (2006)