The Futurist: Finding your way in a reshaped Social Sector

seekerJust finished reading a new research paper, Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector.  The research was commissioned by the The James Irvine Foundation of California.  The researchers, La Piana Consulting identified five key trends that they believe have significant implications for the future of not-for-profit organizations. I discovered the research via Sylvia Cheuy, who highlited the same, on Tamarack, the community engagement organization in Ontario.

I liked the way this research was done.  It’s well presented, its content challenges the reader (in true California style!), invites follow-up dialogue, and well worth the reading.  Here’s my bare bones summary of the research, along with my hit list of collaboration-oriented actions for organizations wanting to do well by doing good.

Five Trends reshaping the Social Sector

  1. Demographic shifts redefine participation. Younger generations are making up a growing percentage of the workforce.  They bring new experiences and expectations to the workplace, including leadership roles.
  2. Technological Advances Abound. Social media is everywhere.  And with it are new ways of connecting and communicating which demand greater openness and transparency.
  3. Networks Enable Work to Be Organized in New Ways. Technology and new norms of working collaboratively are exponentially increasing the impact of networks and allowing far deeper and more meaningful collaborations than ever before.  The organization as an entity is becoming less central and important.
  4. Interest in Civic Engagement and Volunteerism Is Rising.  The mix of an aging society (with time on their hands) and a new generation of young professionals with a strong community service ethic will create a vast pool of potential volunteers.
  5. Sector Boundaries Are Blurring. New structural options are now available to individuals and organizations wanting to do well by doing good.  Social enterprises are a good example of this trend.

The authors believe the interplay between these trends will accelerate the emergence of a fundamentally new not-for-profit sector.  The future will demand a collective rethinking of what it means to be an organization, how individuals define their work and how best to both compete and partner across many permeable boundaries.

Into the future

The authors suggest that nonprofits, funders, and capacity builders alike must become futurists; attuned to shifts in the environment, continuously leaning, open to experimentation, curious, and willing to take risks.

In the spirit of a futurist, and synched with the trends identified above, I’ve culled and extended the research into a first-cut list of actions that I think flows with the trends.


Demographic Shifts

  • Add a member under the age of 30 to the Board; e.g., for a fresh perspective on communications and building relationships;
  • Increase cultural diversity on your Board; every culture has some wisdom to offer = systems view
  • Introduce processes targeted to inclusion; e.g., like those practiced in Greater Victoria’s Quality of Life Challenge

Technology Abundance

  • Share more information about the organization as a way to further public engagement; thinking of my post on the Peep culture in which we are immersed
  • Run a creative competition to spur collaboration and knowledge sharing; e.g., using an outsourcing framework such as the one created by Victoria’s own ideaconnection
  • Use social media to engage staff and volunteers on new approaches to service delivery and/or fundraising; set up a blog, wiki, social networking account,


  • Listen to what others are saying (if anything!) about your organization; e.g., using Twitter Search
  • Involve x in the dialogue; i.e., a stakeholder currently on the sidelines
  • Use a network mapping tool to better understand your social networks and social graph; Beth’s Blog for Non-profits is a great resource in this area
  • Experiment with stretch assignments (outside of the comfort zone) as a way to develop organizational capacities

Civic Engagement & volunteerism

  • Give supporters other ways to advance the mission (beyond just donations); e.g., through public engagement activities
  • Provide virtual volunteering opportunities; it’s safe to do (see this article by Joyce Cravens, an expert on volunteering)
  • Make your volunteer opportunities more accessible by opening your volunteer opportunities database up to outside application developers; e.g., as in this announcement by Volunteer Match
  • Provide micro volunteering opportunities (where volunteers help out in small convenient ways that do not require a long-term commitment to an organization or cause); e.g., on the bus (see micro-volunteering via mobile phones)
  • Tell your story in video; e.g., as in this great storytelling about a Loan (it still rocks me everytime I watch it)

New structures

  • Share the leadership; you can’t speak to large groups at one time to be present in this social graph means you have to be all over the place.  That’s lots of work.  If you stick that on one person, you’ll never be able to have the real relationships that are the hallmark of this age.  (Michael Hoffman from See3 Communications)
  • Experiment with hybrid structures; e.g., combining elements from both the not-for-profit and for-profit models

Are you involved with the social sector, and have some applied experience with these new ways of approaching traditional non-profit activity? Care to share?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to my blog. Always appreciated, Ben.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney

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