Planning for Any Future that Could Come Along

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It’s a scary world out there.

Scary for nonprofits trying to serve those in need. And the need is even greater these days.

Scary for staff and boards who expect a big impact. And know that even greater impact is required.

I believe that fundraisers have a bigger role to play in this future.

Fundraisers have enormous power.

Let’s face it: Your organization looks to you for the money. (Actually, I suspect that your colleagues think you’re printing the money in the basement!) So use that power, that power of purse and wallet!

I think that fundraisers, with their power for good, have a bigger role to play. In these times, you and I are called upon to act courageously and effectively. Only then can we meet the broader institutional and community challenges—and still excel as fundraisers.

I think that the challenges require you and I to anticipate well and to act proactively and purposefully. We fundraisers must step up to the plate and serve as leaders—leaders far beyond fundraising only.

My premise for the future

“Everything will turn out all right—unless something unforeseen crops up.”

One of my favorite quotations comes from Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist and playwright. Beckett (1906–1989) is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He lived most of his adult life in Paris and wrote in both French and English. En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) is considered his most famous work.

That’s a mighty powerful statement: “Everything will turn out all right—unless something unforeseen crops up.” So that’s my first premise.

My second premise is: Something unforeseen will crop up. That’s why it’s such a scary world out there!

So I’ve started talking about planning for any future that could come along. Because I believe we, as individuals and organizations and governments and societies, need to be prepared that something unforeseen will crop up.

Get prepared with planning and leadership

Certain fundamental things need to be in place to prepare for any future that could come along.

First, embrace the concept of planning. Think of planning as learning—so said Arie de Geus, former strategic planner for Royal Dutch Shell. (See de Geus’ Harvard Business Review articles, “Planning as Learning” and “The Living Company.”) Then continue the natural flow: Planning is learning. Learning is change. And that’s what makes great leaders and great organizations…the ability to learn and change.

Next, think about leadership. How do you define leadership? How does your organization define leadership? (Take a look at my book, Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, 3rd edition. See, in particular, Chapter 5, The Art of Leadership. See also Chapter 8, about enabling volunteers to do the right stuff the right way.)

By the way, is it only those “certain people” with that “certain level of whatever” that are leaders? I should hope not! While it takes guts—plain and simple—leaders can come from any position, any place in the organization. Mostly it’s a matter of choice.

You choose. You position yourself. No one can really stop you. (And if the others don’t welcome you as a leader, maybe you deserve a different, better job.)

What is the responsibility that comes with a certain level of…seniority, expertise, experience, privilege, insight, and courage?

Consider these ideas:

  • Willing (and able) to take risks.
  • Questioning the status quo—and questioning assumptions, too.
  • Speaking truth to power—and recognizing that silence is consent.
  • Asking the essential—and cage-rattling—questions.
  • Using conversation as a core business practice—and a human and humane way to be with others, be in community.
  • Building adaptive capacity. (See Carl Sussman’s article, “Making Change: How to Build Adaptive Capacity.”)
  • Serving as change agents.


Where is your organization today?

Like many organizations, I suspect your organization does strategic planning. You likely revisit and update your plans.

I assume that your organization does fundraising planning, too, and other planning as well.

So how is all that going? Is there anything else? What keeps you awake at night?

Here’s what keeps me awake at night:

  • Understanding (and anticipating) disruptions, both in the external environment and internally within the organization
  • Anticipating the next disruption. Will it be a transition, an evolution? Or maybe the next disruption will be revolution!
  • How do we avoid being reactionary and be more proactive?
  • How do we move from strategic planning to incubating innovation?
  • Effectively managing in a world where we cannot predict the variables in our near future, let alone the longer-term future. In Ruth McCambridge’s great article, “External Influences on Nonprofit Management: A Wide-Angle View,” Ruth asks questions like these:
    • Do you believe that a swarm of small things can bring down a big thing with any sort of regularity? If yes, what are the implications? Good heavens! How will we manage that?
    • How can things be done “the right way” without being tightly and centrally controlled? (Here’s another thought: How will traditionally hierarchical organizations survive? Or will they survive?)
    • If our future is based on open networked systems that communicate toward greater effectiveness, are we managing and developing our work toward that end?


Vantage points, or lenses for thinking

So with all this running around in my mind, I began creating a series of vantage points or lenses to scope out the future, to prepare for any future that could come along. Because, honestly, we should be able to anticipate and foresee and…and…

I’ve started using these vantage points (or lenses) when working with my clients. These vantage points are helpful in many situations.

$1v  Foreseeing the unforeseeable

2008 Global Economic Crisis. Eliminating the U.S. charitable deduction.

  1. What issues in our local and global environments might we have anticipated as governments, nonprofits and corporations? How?
  2. What might be “unforeseeable”—in the nonprofit sector; in the external environment; for your nonprofit—but we must foresee to remain strong and effective?
  3. What will you do in your organization to help foresee the unforeseeable?

$1v  Distinguishing between concern and alarm

Think about Three Mile Island or Fukushima Daiichi.

  • What criteria can your nonprofit use to distinguish between concern and alarm?

$1v  Differentiating between risk and gamble

In military terms, able to get out versus no way out.

  1. How will you create a shared understanding of risk and gamble within your nonprofit?
  2. What criteria can your nonprofit use to differentiate between risk and gamble?
  3. What is a good process to effectively manage risk and avoid a gamble?
  4. How does an organization identify the stop-loss moment?

$1v  Anticipating unintended consequences

Cutting brush and trees—and creating the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression

  • How effectively does your nonprofit identify unintended consequences now? How can your nonprofit improve this?

$1v  Imagining that the inconceivable becomes inevitable

Greece leaves the Eurozone. The United Way movement ends in the United States. And how about that charitable deduction?

  1. What are examples of this in society? In the nonprofit sector? In your nonprofit?
  2. What makes something that was once inconceivable become inevitable? How does this happen?
  3. To what degree is this inevitability a result of any of the vantage points above?

$1v  Stop/loss moment

Military and stock market concepts…

  • How do you raise this in your organization?


In conclusion

That’s all I have to say today. What do you think? How can you use this information? How can you help lead your organization, help it learn and change?

And how might we fundraisers use these vantage points for fundraising planning itself—a more narrow view than institutional strategic planning?