Inviting in the Radical: Why Futurism Needs to Go Beyond the Possible

by Hilda Vega, Deputy VP, Philanthropic Practice

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

A War Without End, Ursula K. Le Guin

I have, of late, become obsessed with the future. Is it because Alzheimer’s runs in the family and I grapple with my relationship to my memories if I ‘inherit’ this illness? It may be connected to my love of dystopian fiction, where the consequences of our current decisions play out to an extreme. When I think about philanthropy and futurism, I think about social justice (yesterday and today) and what we need to do to get “there”. “There” is not utopia, though we all love the idea of utopia. It’s the future we want and believe we all deserve, and the steps philanthropy can take to make this future a reality.

Futurism, foresighting, scenario planning, and related tools are nothing new. Which means philanthropy is finally getting around to paying attention to them. Dare we think beyond a five-year strategic plan or a three-year grant cycle? I genuinely hope that unlike other philanthropy trends, this one sticks and we start to move beyond short-term thinking.

In the past 6 months, I’ve participated in two futurism and foresighting exercises: one focused on responding to the urgencies of climate migration and the other centering a series of practices to help funders use new tools for long-term visioning. Both experiences were necessary and involved useful practices that can be adapted for addressing distinct challenges. And yet in both, the gap between a livable utopia and our current tendencies was all too apparent. 

In some ways, we are bound by the master’s tools. Standard and accepted forms of scenario planning were born at Royal Dutch Shell. The idea, back in the 1960s, was to create a safe space for employees to think about alternative futures and how those scenarios might support optimal decision-making. As noted by a team reviewing the history of scenario use at Shell, the company sought to address and overcome “…human tendency to see familiar patterns and be blind to the unexpected.” Yet despite this invitation to be creative and encourage honest discussions of the best and worst of what might come at us, future-centering tools tend to reflect who is using them. In other words, facilitation is key and that means the facilitator(s) is critical to setting context and creating that safe space that enables visioning. In fact, they need to push it in uncomfortable ways now.

We have reached a point in society where we are—frankly—beyond the tipping point. Climate disaster, racial and caste oppression, gender inequality and the very notions of inclusive democracy are constantly under threat. I suspect philanthropy is turning more to futurism because we like to find new, shiny trends to help us get over our malaise. But, as I said, futurism is not new. It’s certainly older than Shell’s scenarios. Yet mainstream philanthropy often strives for legitimacy, a kind of respect and love from communities that ends up limiting risk and imagination. These inclinations are the opposite of what futurism is meant to do. Are we at risk of also using futurism to justify old patterns? 

I struggle with this tension, the desire to sit with the many approaches to futurism and use them in purposeful ways versus succumbing to the cycles of philanthropy I’ve seen over 20+ years in the field: we care about gender equity until white cis-gendered men complain, we care about just migration until the economy turns and we need someone to blame, we care about racial justice until it becomes too hard and we have to engage in fundamental change, and so it goes. Only small progressive funds and funders persist with limited dollars to turn the tide.

In a wild attempt to turn the tide of my own very pessimistic nature, I am going deep on futurism this year. I don’t just want it to work, I know we NEED it to work. But how do we get to a place where we actually see beyond today? That’s right, I made a list (Some habits just work):

  • Go into futurism with only a soft hold on the present and the urgencies of your job: What I observed in both futurism experiences of the past few months is that folks have a hard time truly letting go of the practical (my board won’t go for this, how would we get this done in a timely way, our current budget won’t allow for this…). BUT, if we are trying to envision a world we want for future generations, we need to set these concerns aside and allow for imagination and ideas that we would not normally let enter our minds. What keeps you up at night? What do you dream about when your eyes go to the middle distance in an effort to lessen screen-strain? These are the ideas that help prompt alternatives. The practical will come later, but don’t go in setting boundaries for yourself or they will become blinders.
  • Be comfortable blending approaches: Futurism includes many practices, not just the ones people learn about in business school. The two events I participated in used various methods to elicit ideas about building better solutions to our biggest challenges. I welcomed this because we all know one size does not fit all, and we need to be flexible in thinking about the new and next. Dabbling in futurism, for philanthropy, is a bit of a luxury. If we have some time to experiment, then we also need to allow for revamping, revising, and acknowledging failures that lead us to better approaches. 
  • Acknowledge and actively address that futurism must be grounded in inclusion:  I’ve been working on a reading list for an upcoming retreat my organization is hosting for donors to help craft a long-term vision for Latinx philanthropy, and while there are some nods to traditional methods I include various forms of speculative fiction written by people of color. Afro-, Indigenous- and Latinx-Futurism are critical if poorly understood expressions of how communities of color in the US/across the Americas ground futurism in the wisdom of our ancestors. If philanthropy has a growing narrative of centering those most impacted by injustice, then it’s our responsibility in the field to learn and incorporate community practices in our futurism work. That the realm of futurism from diverse communities is frequently explored through fiction, art, dance, or ceremonial practice requires us to learn and adapt—not the other way around. 
  • Accept that futurism is a practice, not a one-stop problem solver: I feel as though this should require little elaboration. Like many approaches, people need to experiment and learn from results. Philanthropy, in my experience, tends to prefer the idea of quick solutions that can be measured and called a success in a three-year grant cycle. This is impossible and we need to reset our thinking to accept that long-evolving problems require systemic solutions. Futurism is a tool, but one that we need to use every day for a long time to see both small and big changes along the path to the future we want. And we can’t give up at the end of our strategic plan and say it didn’t work.
  • Allow yourself to be radical: Yes, be crazy. Think about being a cyborg, about moving $50 billion to your community in the next 10 years, about a woman-identified president in the US, about not just halting planetary warming but turning it back to livable levels. And yes, think about what your ancestors wanted, what your peoples’ cosmovisions tell you when you listen in the quiet of the morning. We spend too much time being practical and very little time being creative. I included the LeGuin quote because for many of us, this focus on the day-to-day feels necessary, but ask yourself if maybe it’s also because there are so many powerful people who benefit from us limiting ourselves in this way? 

I’m joining a cohort  to learn new futurism practices this month. I hope to continue opening my mind and breaking old patterns. Perhaps, before this fades into the next trendy object in philanthropy we will begin to Invest in the future like we want it to happen, even if we aren’t there to see it or measure its outputs and outcomes.


  2.  In a recent gathering that included reviews of global problems, participants noted that the ‘gallery walk’ information was largely pulled from mainstream sources and did not reflect racialized or oppressed communities as informing the issues. The facilitator responded that they wished those communities would make infographics for easy use. WRONG ANSWER.