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The Future Cannot Be Planned

In these unprecedented times, by definition we cannot know what’s ahead. There’s no blueprint.

Authors: Jessica Feingold, Co-CEO

Back in the pre-2020 before-times, Common Future used to host quarterly planning meetings. Pre-pandemic, we’d come together in Oakland, baked goods and coffee scattered across the conference table, and spend our time doing a lot of critical organizational work. None of it could quite be called planning — even the frequency alone was a signal that maybe we weren’t the ones planning. Could a strategic plan really predict the future when it gets re-planned every 3 months? Maybe, the world had plans for us.

Now, in these unprecedented times, by definition we cannot know what’s ahead. There’s no blueprint. We’ve never been here before. And yet time and again I am asked by our partners to review our strategic plan. They not only want to know where we will be in 5 or 10 years, but want to see the linear path we plan to take to get there.

How can I tell them that linearity is no way to approach complexity? As Vu Le argues, “this penchant for linear thinking oversimplifies the problems we are trying to solve, and thus in fact [is] worsening and perpetuating them.” He notes how “linear thinking is inequitable,” born out of white supremacy culture and a fixation on perfectionism and predictability. From logic models to formal business plans, the expectations of nonprofit organizations by philanthropies are hijacked from the privileges of university education while erasing the inherent wisdom of communities closest to the problem.

At Common Future, we take a different approach. We embrace experimentation in the face of change. As a think and do tank, we create impact by taking calculated risks and conducting adaptable experiments to quickly learn and iterate in order to solve problems. We understand that the issues we are tackling are complex, and therefore we embrace the fact that there are “many possible futures, not just one.” As Margaret Heffernan puts it, our leadership plans in a way that “hold[s] the tension between the immediate, which is very often solved with a lot of experiments, and the very long term, which is about setting a clear direction.”

Organizations like ours are undergoing what adrienne maree brown calls an “intentional adaptation,” to forge new ways of organizational planning. Here is what our collective wisdom is teaching us:

  • Mindset matters. Our experimental mentality requires us to be thoughtful and data-driven, but not dogmatic. Hypotheses can be proven wrong. Lessons can point new directions. We stay open to possibilities and trust in emergent strategies.
  • Plan the things that you can reasonably predict. Linear thinking may not apply to systemic issues, but it may make sense for parts of the business, as Heffernan says. We have a strong financial growth plan, developed in partnership with Nonprofit Finance Fund, that gives us infrastructure to undergird our experimental approach to impact.
  • Update your idea of the “roadmap.” Even Google Maps allows us to avoid collisions, navigate around roadblocks, and choose the scenic route. There certainly is no one path to the goal, and much can be learned while on route. Instead, our team sets clear goals, collaborates on promising strategies, and iterates on the tactics — all the while measuring whether and in what ways are our efforts taking us close to the goal. This process, brought to the organization by COO Jennifer Njuguna, is right-sized to addressing the complexity of systemic issues that have resulted in the racial wealth gap.
  • Keep the North Star: Even as strategies and tactics shift and evolve, in response to new inputs and better data, the mission remains the same. Part of this is forging team alignment around what really matters — and what doesn’t — in producing our intended impact.

For every grantee’s 40-page strategic plan shelved at a foundation, there are numerous Black, indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and immigrant organizations who are navigating complexity through some of the most harrowing racial justice, economic, and climatic challenges of our time. Instead of asking for their plan, ask for their process. Instead of evaluating their numbers, analyze their approach. Trust their wisdom, even and especially when what they know doesn’t fit your frame.

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