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Applied futurism: Putting trends to work today
17 August 2004
by Susan Ellis

Do you watch the national and world news and shake your head? Do you wonder if global and regional developments will end up affecting the volunteer program you run? You should.

Sometimes current events provide opportunities to grab what's new or "hot"; other times they will set off warning bells to help you avoid negative impact. You can strengthen your volunteer program by becoming an effective forecaster, making sure you seize great trends while sidestepping the bad.

Why Is forecasting necessary?

First, keep in mind that futurists refer to what's-to-come in plural terms. They talk about futures, since at any given time there are an infinite number of paths we can take. In fact, they consider three different types of futures:

  • Possible futures, which include anything and everything within the laws of the universe as known today, from utopian scenarios to hellish nightmares.
  • Probable futures, which are a central slice of possible futures but represent a reasonable extrapolation of what is happening today into coming years – if major changes (catastrophes, miracles) do not occur.
  • Preferable futures, which are clearly subjective, as seen by the eye of the beholder.

Volunteering is all about preferable futures, since people only volunteer for the causes they believe must be supported for a positive outcome. But recognize that "preferable" is an opinion, so do some reality checking to make sure that your organization and the volunteers who work within it envision the same ends. For example, the enormous changes in American health care in the last decade have led to hospitals being very different places than when many long-time volunteers signed up, with even more changes predicted. If you took a poll of the priorities of hospital administrators today and compared their responses to those of volunteers asked the same question, do you think the two groups would agree? What do you think new applicants for hospital volunteer positions envision when they project health care into the next decade?

On a practical level, this crystal ball gazing matters more than we may credit. If organization management (both paid administrators and the volunteer board) and the frontline paid and volunteer staff dream of futures that are not in sync, conflict is inevitable in such areas as budgeting, policy making, work design, marketing, evaluation, and recognition. Differences in vision between the officers and members of all-volunteer associations will similarly lead to tension.

The other practical reason that futurism is necessary for volunteerism practitioners is that it can be applied to volunteer program development. The more you know about what concerns people publicly and personally, the more effectively you can craft your recruitment messages. The more accurately you can recognize new client needs and surmise the services your organization will start offering to clients, the better you will be in creating volunteer assignments on the cutting edge -- proactively meeting those needs rather than reacting after-the-fact. A volunteer program that leads its agency into the best service provision is far more essential to mission than a program that waits to be dragged in new directions.

Becoming a futurist

The first step in forecasting -- and then taking action on -- trends is to notice them! This means paying attention to the news and to commentaries on the news. It includes seeing recurring themes in fictional t.v. shows and movies, too. Thirty years ago all sit-coms concerned nuclear families of mother/father/sons/daughters. Today sit-coms offer mix-and-match families of single divorced parents, single never-married parents, couples without children, blended multiple married families, various sexual orientations, etc. If your organization serves children, for example, what do you, your colleagues, and volunteers picture as “family” and how does that mesh with what the children receiving services think?

Living in society with your eyes open, then, is a good first step to recognizing trends. But it takes conscious attention. Broaden your reading to include both the editorial and the op-ed pages of the newspaper. Skim through magazines geared to various audiences (teenagers, different professions, specific ethnic groups) and spot check what issues seem to be percolating (this is a great way to find value in the odd publications lying around doctors' offices and hair salons!). Attend a Chamber of Commerce meeting or a current events forum at a university or library. As you identify trends you want to follow, recruit volunteers to help you learn more about them, including surfing the Web for more facts and opinions.

Once you feel in-the-know about trends, enlist help in analyzing the issues from different perspectives. Once or twice a year, convene a Trends Think Tank in which you invite volunteers and staff to discuss social, economic and cultural issues they feel are in flux and to consider how any of these might impact your organization. Ask volunteers to clip articles or refer you to useful Web sites whenever something catches their eye as a trend alert.

It's very important to look beyond the “first wave” of anticipated outcomes of any trend. Something that seems quite negative may, after the first turmoil fades, end up more positive in the long run. In the same way, something that looks wonderful at first glance may evolve more problems over time. A good strategy is to make yourself (and your Think Tank) identify both positive and negative possible outcomes for any trend, even if one list is longer than the other. Know yourself, too. If you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist, force yourself to see another side of the issue – or get help doing so.

Finally, recruit expert volunteers as “advisors on the future.” A wealth of knowledge is available in every community and someone does not have to work on site as a volunteer to provide insight to you and key decision-makers. As volunteer program manager, you can ask all sorts of people to give a few hours a year to a meeting, a phone call, or a long e-mail to answer to specific questions from their trained perspectives. Such advisors can be political figures, funders, media reporters, university faculty, or any type of civic leader. Here are sample questions you might pose:

  • Given your area of expertise, what do you think is the most critical trend that our organization ought to prepare for in the next 3 years? The next 20 years?
  • Given your understanding of our client group, what three issues do you feel will have the most impact on them, and how, in the next five years?
  • Given your understanding of our local community, what changes do you envision occurring here in the next 3 years? The next 20 years?

These types of questions should elicit raw data that your Think Tank can then take and analyze from the perspective of your organization.

While you're imagining the future, can you picture an organization that looks to the volunteer services department for its visionary thinking? That asks you to be on the strategic planning team? That uses the unique ability of volunteers to respond quickly to new circumstances by testing innovative projects through volunteer action? 

  • How do you keep informed about trends and issues?
  • How do you apply what you learn from trends?
  • How do you/could you help your organization develop future strategies?

Susan J. Ellis is the President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism.