Peter Bishop, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Foresight at the University of Houston. Dr. Bishop retired in 2013, after directing a master’s degree program for over thirty-years.
He then established a nonprofit organization called “Teach the Future.” The “Teach the Future” purpose is to bring the same kind of futures thinking, not at the professional level, but at the literacy level, to high schools and college undergraduates.
This Part II article is based upon a the continuation of a August 2020 discussion with Dr. Bishop and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox.
You ended our last exchange by stressing the importance of nonprofit leaders staying mission-focused as they plan for the future. This is guidance easily understandable to nonprofit leaders. Their lives have been dedicated to social good. Your advice: “Don’t forget the planning bedrock of your values. Don’t forget why you are here in the first place,” provides an important starting point for planning for post-COVID-19, a jumping-off place that will resonate with their life's work.
So, step #1. for leaders thinking like futurists is to keep their nonprofit moving in the direction of social change and be minimally distracted by what’s going on around them. And based on your comments in our previous article, step #2. would be to collaborate with like-minded people.
Which has always been true. But people are more receptive to that now because they’re searching for answers. They’re more open to bold ideas, “The world that we knew has just gone away. What’s going to take its place? Here, this person might have an answer, might have a plan we can rally around and use to support our particular mission.”
There are good nonprofits that absolutely collaborate, but there are some nonprofits who are territorial because there are only so many resources to go around. Perhaps backing away from that traditional turf protection might difficult, but helpful.
Entrepreneurs are the same way. Nonprofits are a form of entrepreneurship. The toughest thing to get an entrepreneur to let go of is the leadership of the venture, of the enterprise. “This is my invention.” There is a sense of ownership, and people are afraid that someone’s going to take over, someone’s going to misuse their work. It’s very human.
One thing that's come through, loud and clear, in this discussion is that step #3. is to be brave, be bold and act decisively. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and speak out with a new way of looking at things or a new way of doing things.
Frankly, my experience with nonprofits is that they generally are not risk takers or early adopters. It's understandable: they are using public money and they count on public approval. To speak up, creatively change operations, try new ways of achieving mission and to take risks may be the most difficult of your three step directives.
However, I suspect that nonprofits who find themselves unable to follow a new plan or take a new path or prefer to try to go back to business as usual, will fail at saving their nonprofit organization, however important their mission.
Yes, absolutely. Nonprofit leaders should constantly be thinking, “What if we thought of the world in this other way?” The good about this particular time, this pandemic, is that the world has radically changed and destroyed half of the obstacles to new ways of doing and thinking.
In my case, I think about my career in the old established school system, which is likely changed forever. Now there is a scenario out there where most of it goes back to a familiar model, but I doubt that it will be 100% true. How are we going to build a new era of schools after this trauma of lock down and online learning? In my world, that’s the challenge.
Parents are struggling with this same question. It's very difficult to grasp that the educational system as we have known it for centuries may be changing.
I use the concept of geological strata. Change sometimes blows away some of the topsoil and most of the deeper ground is still the same. If you dig a building four-stories deep, you take out those strata. If you blow up a bomb, you take out more and more—down to the bedrock.
Most people believe that everything, except the very thinnest layer of the top of the strata, is permanent. They could not imagine living without those lower layers. And now the world has exploded. The top four layers of are gone. The rhetoric: “That’s how we do thing, why we do things, what our message must be,” etc. is obsolete. "We have to have offices,” for instance. “That’s just what normal adult people do. Everybody has an office.” Well, now, nobody has an office. And may never have an office, according to our old definition of office, again.
It is extremely hard to accept these changes and look forward, because the way we’ve “always done things” is familiar, they’ve been useful, and they’ve been successful.
But a visionary sees that the old ways may not be sustainable. Now, the world has come in and said, “That guy might be right.” We’ve got to change; we don’t have a choice.
During this pandemic, people are coming to the realization “what I thought was permanent is not permanent.” That is correct now and it has always been and always will be correct. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will have the opportunity to be thinking creatively about how we want to rebuild the world. How do we want to rebuild the Third Sector? How do we want to rebuild our own nonprofit? What do we want our personal place in this new order to look like?
The outcome, the near future, doesn’t have to be cataclysmic. Perhaps, with smart and forward thinking and a willingness to stick to our values, work closely with others and be bold in our thinking, we can achieve more than we could in the past.
Many thanks to Dr. Peter Bishop for sharing his views with MissionBox.