Strategic foresight and philanthropy – a conversation over dinner

On the 19th of November, SIX hosted an intimate dinner with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London to explore the opportunity for philanthropy to engage in strategic foresight, ahead of a workshop to follow up from a retreat we hosted on the topic in the summer.

Foundations are uniquely placed to be ahead of the curve. But many aren’t. Why? How can they move from being reactive to being proactive? Many foundations go through a strategic planning process every 3-5 years but rarely a strategic foresight process – why not?

The following highlights some of the rich dinner conversation and presents questions that many foundations should be asking themselves as they think through the capabilities and mindsets they need to foster to better prepare the future:

  • Strategic foresight isn’t about predicting the future. It’s about exploring possible, plausible and preferable futures and developing your own posture to the future – how you will face these futures? What attitude, position and reaction will you have? Strategic foresight is about being reflective, agile, and responsive and moving away from reactive behaviour. It’s a set of tools to help develop a more future-thinking mindset and capability. It’s an active process and a journey. It requires regular reflection on your personal and organisational posture to different futures.
  • Strategic foresight is a set of tools and a mindset that can help funders adjust their response to the future. So, why isn’t it yet part of best practice for many foundations? Given the structure and governance of many foundations, they often lack the urgency for change. Do we need a burning platform to engage in this work? And how hot does that platform have to get?
  • Strategic foresight is intrinsic to the innovation process and larger systems change. When you consider the change you want to see, this is underpinned by strategic foresight methodology. However, strategic foresight is often missing from most design and innovation processes. Strategic plans often fall short when they lose these components.
  • Being explicit about values is particularly important for philanthropy. There are certain values inherent within social innovation – how do we ensure these values translate into our foresight work? We often think that the future is value neutral, but it’s not. We can take the inherent values of social innovation into our foresight work by ensuring others have a voice and question the inherent narrative.
  • Philanthropy can and should support the research and development of the future of society. Strategic foresight is a way to help philanthropy to think differently about its role and accelerating innovation, moving beyond siloes.
  • How will we know we’re making a difference to the future? What are the metrics for success? The open ended nature of this work may limit its success given the common attitude to show tangible results. How do you shift governance within foundations to embrace this way of thinking and operating? How do you shift from demanding outputs to embracing the agility of the process? How do we enable the capabilities and conditions for this change?
  • Principles of strategic foresight:
    • Think beyond one’s self
    • Think beyond the present
    • Think about the system
  • Philanthropic foundations are uniquely positioned as they can think about the future rather than current politics, which constrains governments and leaves them thinking only in the next day, month or max 4-5 election year cycles. Foundations can think about the future with a view of those that they work with and serve, including their voices in these activities, helping to shift perceptions and narratives. Storytelling is fundamental to this work and thinking through our desired futures. Consider the narrative of the future that is trying to emerge – is this aligned to your mission? If not, why not? What is your role in this?  What’s your internal and external narrative?

At SIX, we think strategic foresight is a valuable tool for foundations to be more transformative in their grantmaking. As such, it’s an important topic in our programme of work with philanthropy, which challenges, inspires and enables funders to be more systemic in their thinking and practice, and increase the flow of funding to social innovation and systemic change.

You can see more about the strategic foresight retreat we hosted over the summer here. If you’re interested in being part of this collective of funders to develop your own capacity and that of the philanthropic field, please get in touch with