To be human is to ponder the future.

Is your nonprofit pondering your future, or are you just sitting back and letting it happen?

A recent New York Times article, Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch, struck me as being eminently applicable to nonprofits. Toffler, who died last week at the age of 87, wrote presciently in 1970 of a sickness he called “future shock.” Too many nonprofits, and nonprofit workers, are in the throes of this malady.

I hope you’ll keep reading, because I’m about to reveal something personal. Future shock is real.

Future shock is a paralyzing disease.

Toffler wrote:

“unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments.”

It’s easy to chalk “future shock” up to a metaphorical description of what ensues when folks have difficulty dealing with new things. But it’s much more authentic than that. It’s a real psychological malady.

TMI Alert: On a personal note, I know future shock is real because I’ve suffered from it. It’s why I’ve been shouting to anyone who will listen that nonprofit fundraising and marketing has changed more in the past seven years or so than in the preceding 50. The accelerating pace of technological change is taking a rapid toll on the workforce; you can’t ignore this elephant in the room! When you have to learn a lot of new skills at once… when what once worked no longer does… when you feel you can barely keep pace with best practices… when people suggest you adopt a new strategy that you barely understand… it can be dizzying. And I was dizzy! And sometimes light-headed and faint. I thought I had a brain tumor (okay, I confess to a bit of neuroticism). And I wanted answers! So I had an MRE. A CT scan. Saw physicians. Went to bio-feedback. To yoga. Did breathing exercises. Finally saw a psycho-therapist. And, guess what? There was, thankfully, nothing physically wrong with me. I just needed to take charge and get a grip. [It’s why you’ll often see me applying lessons learned from psychology to my nonprofit work]

If any of this sounds even vaguely familiar, my best advice is along the lines of “Physician, heal thyself.” You can do it!

How Your Nonprofit Can Get a Grip on the Future

Begin with evaluating your symptoms. They include:

  • Difficulty adapting to rapid change
  • Crises arising regularly due to inability to deal with ever-faster change
  • “Dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of being responsible for the solution

If your nonprofit organization and/or staffers suffer from future shock, it’s time for a cure.

Toffler, of course, wrote a lot about huge local and global crises. Big changes characterized by periods of what can only be described as madness. Sadly, this is how the world is coming to feel. We seem to hear of another terrorist attack or riot daily. A new political crisis. Another pandemic. Natural disasters and environmental challenges, like hurricanes, earthquakes, Ebola and Zika virus, and climate change, to name just a few.

People are weary of feeling out of control. Moments of silence don’t do it anymore. Protests seem futile. Letters to congress don’t yield results. The list goes on and on.

Yet the pace of change continues unabated.

Fortuitously, your nonprofit is uniquely suited to be a part of the cure – because it’s your job to create positive social change.

Politics is failing. Governments are failing. There’s no clear forum for society as a whole to think productively about long-term change.

Except, perhaps, the people.

And people this year seem to be tired of just bouncing along, caught in a present that offers fewer opportunities and greater threats. Terrorism appears to know no bounds. Middle-class incomes are at best stagnant. Politicians are dishonest and corrupt. Techno-abetted globalization is creating economic panic across much of the Western world. Inequality is becoming exacerbated by a backlash against the dominance of tech companies— all of which makes it harder for the little guys to fight back. Free trade and immigration are scapegoats. People are arming themselves with weapons to protect against uncertainty.

It’s dizzying!

How do we protect ourselves from, and prepare for, the approaching future?

The people want answers!

Sadly, it’s hard to know where to look in order to find them. Because the same technology that’s disrupted “business as usual” leads also to misinformation. Especially when folks have attention spans that last all of two seconds before they move on to the next thing. So the future has become “sound bite” land. We “learn;” we react. Which, when you think about it, is the very opposite of thoughtful, well-informed planning.

The results are discouraging. People have been registering their fear, frustration and anger in political outlets. It’s given us populists (albeit of very different strokes) like Donald Drumpf and Bernie Sanders in the U.S., and Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage in Europe, among others, playing to the public’s shock and outrage. Recently it gave us Brexit. And the aftermath of Brexit. Backlash after backlash. Frustratingly small-minded and shortsighted. The problem is not an excess of democracy. It’s an excess of wearing blinders while participating in democracy.

Backlash is Not a Proactive Solution

While backlash against causes beyond our individual control is understandable in the context of rapid, disorienting, destabilizing change, it’s just that. Backlash. It’s not a thoughtful, reasoned, informed forward-thinking plan.

Backlash has been the culprit over the past year in the United Kingdom public benefit sector as well. Mass negative perceptions of charities have led to a blunt clamping down, government regulation and a bit of reactive torpor on the part of nonprofits.

We need better ways — as people, as individual nonprofits, and as a society — to think about and plan for adapting to long-term change.

How Can Nonprofits Take up the Torch to Shine a Light Forward?

This brings us back to admitting there’s an elephant in the room. One we’re pretending not to see.

As writer Elizabeth Drew, talking about the near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future of infrastructure, recently noted:

“It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.”

Putting one’s head in the sand… backing away and deciding to do less… hoping that change will go away… that problems will fix themselves… these are not future-oriented behaviors. These are actions that live where the light is dimming.

How do nonprofits get back to the future?

First, a little history.

There used to be a whole field of futurism as an academic study. In the aftermath of World War II, forecasting became institutionalized. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry. World leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day. In 1972 the federal government blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Lawmakers embraced the notion of making government more anticipatory. Futurists were optimistic.

But since the 1980s, futurism has fallen from grace. And it’s curious. Because its heyday was concurrent with the rise of new tools for quantitative and qualitative forecasting – an outgrowth from the war that had jump-started whole new fields of inquiry — systems analysis, operations research, and cybernetics. Long-term strategic planning was felt to be the best defense to protect against future disasters.

Today, we’re in a new era of “big data.” Disruption continues, unabated. One expert says:

“We can say 90% of the world’s data will be created next year. By 2020, we can say 90% of the data was created a second ago. That’s how fast data is moving.”

We’ve got forecasting tools like never before. Even most nonprofits have databases and/or CRM systems that make it possible to analyze results. Donor retention metrics. Numbers of fans and followers who take actions. Biggest influencers. And so forth. So why are we so hesitant to use data and metrics to get a handle on where we’re heading? Or where we might reasonably head? Just because some of the projections may turn out to be wrong? [Some have suggested the demise of futurism coincided with “marketing” or something that seemed made up, like science fiction].

Next, a little honesty.

The digitally transformed world we’re in requires critical thinking and challenging the status quo. The way the world does business is different today. Just collecting data and slapping it into an ancient framework for approaching problems won’t do the trick. Our communal zeitgeist – networked and connected – has changed. Enormously.

You need to understand how your constituents are different than you previously thought. As you collect new insights, you must also apply them to your organization’s infrastructure so you can work strategically and compete differently. Perhaps ironically, in this digitally-revolutionized age, nonprofits must learn to become even more human-centered.

Which brings us to organizational culture and values, which seriously need a reboot. It’s challenging, because management infrastructures by nature are designed to support and reinforce existing paradigms. Thinking outside this box requires real will. And a little help to kick-start the process. I find it helpful to look at:

  1. Brian Solis’ The 10 Reasons Your Company is Creating a Culture of Mediocrity Measured by Unhappiness and Low Morale,
  2. the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr., Fund report “Beyond Fundraising: What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?” and
  3. Fundraising Bright Spots, also from the Haas, Jr. Fund.

But you can’t just look inside your organization.

Shining a light requires looking at big picture threats from many perspectives.

When’s the last time you did a simple SWOT analysis?

In a rapidly changing world, strengths and weaknesses change rapidly as well. As do opportunities and threats. So get a team together. Insiders and outsiders. Staff and volunteers. Folks at the top, middle and bottom. And take a look at where you are and where you’re headed, based on discernable internal and external factors.

Personally, I still love the SWOT as a planning tool. But there are other tools as well. You may have a favorite, and that’s great. Do whatever works for you. The most important thing? Take a cue from Nike: Just Do It!

Embracing the Future is a Human-Centered Endeavor

Don’t forget, in this era of big data, that not all forecasting is about data. No single discipline can anticipate tomorrow’s circumstances holistically. Future planning must encompass a range of disciplines, including human-focused disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology.

Whether you’re charged with content marketing, donor experience, employee engagement, or getting leadership support to make change happen, it all comes down to knowing who you’re talking to — and understanding what’s important to them. If you’re not relevant, you may as well not even exist.

You need to meet somewhere in the middle of what you’ve been saying and what people want to hear.

No more “that’s not the way we’ve always done things.” No more punishing folks for taking risks and trying new things. No more accepting high employee turnover as what’s “normal.” If folks are unhappy inside your organization, how can you possibly hope to make folks happy on the outside?

Think Big or Go Home

Most important, future planning requires the will to be a big player in making change happen.

In 1989, a former director of the Congressional Clearinghouse for the Future told an interviewer,

“I think most people in the Reagan administration believed you didn’t really need to think through future problems if you didn’t see the government as being one of the big players in solving them.”

Is your nonprofit committed to solving problems? Do you think big enough?

I ask this question in all seriousness. I’ve worked with more than one nonprofit where the leadership thought small. They were content with their status quo. Putting band-aids on problems. Not addressing root causes. If this is you, then you won’t see the need for long-term planning. You’ll continue to work in the present. Like an E.R. unit of a hospital. Stuff happens; you react.

This is one modus operandi. It has a place. But seriously ask yourself if it’s YOU.

The status quo is a harder and harder place within which to operate. Because, while change has always been constant, today it’s even more so. Because it’s happening so fast.

If you and/or your nonprofit want to shine a light forward, you’ve got to plan.

Because the future doesn’t stop coming just because you ignore it. Quite the opposite. Change continues, unabated, at a more and more rapid rate. You can let it leave you in the dust, or you can choose to get ahead of the curve.

As Toffler put it in “Future Shock:”

“Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

How is your nonprofit embracing the future? What planning processes do you have in place — and are they working? Please share in the comments.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to OneJustice.