Are You Taking the Long View?

Ellen Remmer
Thursday, March 20, 2014

Failing to plan is planning to fail.  Undoubtedly you’ve heard that quote before and it’s certainly something that many foundations have in mind when thinking about the future. On the other hand, the strategic plan has received quite a bit of abuse recently, influenced in part by the Monitor Institute’s article, The Strategic Plan is Dead.  Long Live Strategy. As the authors of that piece point out, “the world has become a more turbulent place, where anyone with a new idea can put it into action before you can say ‘startup’ and launch widespread movements with a single Tweet.”  In today’s environment, where the planning timeframe seems to have telescoped down to nanoseconds or certainly no more than a year, is there any point in taking the long view?

It turns out that some of the new Chinese philanthropists think so.

Over the past few months, TPI has visited with a number of Asian foundations who are developing philanthropic strategies with extended timeframes.  In 2013, we worked with theKaifeng Foundation, one of the new private foundations in China, to provide strategic counsel on where the foundation might be in a mere five years, including a white paper on the history, landscape and trends of U.S. philanthropy.  We raised some provocative questions about how they could achieve their very ambitious mission of pursuing human progress and promoting social development in a rapidly changing China.  Last fall, they continued their quest to learn, reflect and define their strategy by conducting a two week listening tour with academics, thoughtful practitioners and funders from the Eastern US.

The question that caught their imagination during this tour was the same one that the Ford Foundation asked itself at a critical point in its development:  What are the critical issues affecting our geography and the world over the next 50 years?  How do these issues drive our strategy?

The second interaction was with a large multi-generational family based in Hong Kong with whom we worked to develop their first comprehensive philanthropic plan – utilizing personal, philanthropic and business assets.  A driving question behind their planning process was this: How do we become a 100 year old family? How do we invest in structure and governance in order to ensure that we have a significant and sustaining impact on the health of our family and society?  Their conclusion was that philanthropy and social investment will be an important component of their roadmap.

One of the great strengths of private philanthropy is its nimbleness – an ability to respond quickly to the moment and bet on the dark horses that emerge from unexpected places.  But these Asian philanthropists remind us that it’s important to do so within an awareness of the big, sweeping, generative and disruptive trends that are happening all around us.  Not just this year’s latest technological innovation, but the deep-rooted, values-based currents of change.

What are those trends and big issues?  See next week’s blog for Peter Karoff’s answer to this question.

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