Back to top

Creating the Future: How Philanthropy Can Solve for Tomorrow’s Challenges Today

Thursday, March 18, 2021

By Mike Wang

There's a commonly told story in Philadelphia about the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway. The story goes that the politicians and designers were so focused on solving what they perceived to be the traffic problems of the prior 10 years, that from the day the last yellow stripe was painted, the notorious thruway was already outdated.

There's a broader truth in the story about how institutions tend to deal with challenges.

The post-pandemic world will present philanthropists with the same host of colossal challenges of the last decade. Our collective understanding of many of those challenges that philanthropists have been chipping away at for decades in education, facing working mothers, in healthcare, and more has sharpened during the past year. Some of them—like income inequality, gaps in student achievement, and the gender pay gap— have been deeply exacerbated by the unequal economic recovery.

But, what if instead of just doubling down on the problems of the last decade, philanthropists worked to envision a new and different future?

Coming out of the pandemic, philanthropists will also have an opportunity to reinvigorate their vision and their approach to giving. They will have a chance to build on the lessons, technologies, and challenges we collectively experienced during the pandemic and to recognize fundamental inequities, leverage the new skills and possibilities, and orient their giving around creating a new, forward-thinking vision for the future.

We’re already seeing small tastes of this in different sectors. As an example, some educators are finding new and better ways to use technology, and many communities are exploring the long-term future of innovations such as educational pods and remote learning. Imagine if we took these and other insights and put them to work to make schooling more custom-tailored to student needs in order to close the massive and widening learning gap.

So how does the savvy philanthropist start to create a forward-thinking vision?

First, these philanthropists work to more deeply understand the root causes of the problems they are tackling. They reckon with the under-the-surface dynamics that shape broken systems. They are willing to accept complexity and see difficult issues as interconnected.  They explore how race, history, class, and power imbalances shape those problems and what communities are most impacted, directly and indirectly. They start with questions, not answers.

Second, creative forward-thinking philanthropists commit to continuous improvement and build feedback loops to evaluate their progress. They create hypotheses, test them, seek out feedback from the organizations and communities closest to the issues, and are willing to check ideology at the door. Too many organizations fall in love with their own approach to solving problems and inadvertently short circuit their ability to adjust course in meaningful ways, even when it is warranted.

Finally, these philanthropists expand their networks, including who they are funding and working with as well as listening to. Funders simply cannot create a meaningful vision for the future when opportunities to understand the perspectives of those most impacted are limited. Smart philanthropists find ways to get outside of their comfort zone, build more diverse portfolios, and invite more diverse voices to inform their work.

There has never been a better moment for philanthropists to get out of the business of solving yesterday's problems and instead focus on creating a forward-thinking vision, without constraints, informed by lessons from the field this last year.

Next time you find yourself sitting on the Schuylkill Expressway, imagine what it would have been like if, when the artery was built, the designers had imagined a 21st century world. Philanthropists who focus on the problems of the last decade instead of seizing the moment to create a new vision run the risk of creating their own “Schuylkill Expressway” in their giving. Now is the moment to heed that lesson and to create something more equitable, more innovative, and more impactful than before.

Mike Wang is a partner at Building Impact, which provides advising, coaching, and convening services to catalyze systemic change around the most pressing social issues.