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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Scanning for Megatrends in the Nonprofit World
by James Gelatt

Several years ago, I was an association staff person with the responsibility of overseeing strategic planning; and, thanks in large part to a skilled facilitator whom I had retained the planning process was going smoothly.

The planning committee had come to agreement on a mission that was succinct and yet accurate, and had fleshed out the mission with goals and strategic directions.

As we were preparing for a meeting of the planning committee, I asked the consultant when in the process we would address major external factors and how these might impact the association. The facilitator's answer was: "Why don't you come up with some trends that we can include in the final report?"

You know how sometimes you have a feeling that something's not right, but you can't quite identify what it is? That's how I felt when I learned we were going to consider external factors merely as an add-on.

When I myself became a teacher of organizational theory, I saw just how wrong-headed that approach is. Organizations are "open systems," relying on the environment for resources (financial, human, technological) which they convert into products and services, which in turn the organization attempts to sell or otherwise provide to persons in the external environment. The organization must interact with its environment in order to survive.

If it is true that, at every stage of the organization's life cycle, interaction with the external world is inevitable, then it follows that we must continually monitor that external world in order to seize on opportunities and not be blindsided by threats. This is the essence of environmental scanning.

At its best, environmental scanning is a systematic, ongoing attempt to identify ways in which the environment about us is changing. Scanning involves looking at trends and issues at a variety of levels, beginning with the macro. It means gathering information from a wide range of sources; then sorting, codifying, interpreting, and analyzing that information.

Used effectively, environmental scanning impacts planning by challenging the assumptions on which decisions are made, and indeed providing a basis for informed decision making.

Underpinning the whole idea of environmental scanning is the belief that there are alternative futures, that there is no single, inevitable future. Further, scanning presumes we can envision those alternatives ó in other words, that we have a range of possible futures and that within this range, the future can be shaped or at least influenced.

If you and your organization are engaged in strategic planning (or better yet, strategic "management," which implies an ongoing process of planning, implementing, evaluating, modifying), the following major trends will be of interest to you.

The Changing Nature of the Workplace

An article in The Futurist articulated seven ways in which the workplace and the workforce are changing. The seven noted are:

  • The virtual organization. Organizations are becoming increasingly amorphous, changing shape and composition in response to the environment.
  • Just-in-time workforce. In order to be "virtual," the organization must be able to expand or contract as needed. Hence, the increased use of outsourcing, "temps," retirees.
  • Ascendancy of the knowledge worker. Ask anyone who works for the human resources department of a technology company what his or her biggest challenge is. You are likely to hear: Hiring enough workers with knowledge of the technology.
  • Those with the knowledge are pulling down starting salaries that some of us in the nonprofit world would like to have in our senior years.
  • Computerized coaching and electronic monitoring. You see it in the news; companies are increasingly monitoring how their workers spend their time (and expecially how they spend time on the computer). The positive side to the technology is the ability to provide real-time coaching, so that staff can learn new skills on-the-job as needed.
  • Growth of worker diversity and aging of the work force. More about these two trends later.
  • Birth of the dynamic work force. Asked what they looked for in their first employer, more than a third in one survey said: "the ability to lead a balanced lifestyle." Especially among younger workers (e.g., Gen Xer's) work does not define life.

Changing Patterns in Healthcare

  • "Virtual" treatment is on its way. Physicians and patients may not need to be in the same room, or even the same country. Use of robotics could make it possible for a surgeon in New England to operate on a patient in California.
  • Diagnostics should also improve due to advances in technology. In the future, physicians will use diagnostic plates the size of credit cards containing a megabyte of information.
  • Health care costs exceeded $1 trillion in 1996, significantly outpacing inflation. The percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) devoted to health care is estimated to comprise nearly 20 percent by this year (2000).
  • Despite a growing "wellness" movement and health awareness, too many people are getting too fat.
  • Euthanasia will move to center stage as an issue, as will cloning and eugenics.

Changing Demographics

  • The racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of the U.S. will continue to be "mixed." In our children's lifetimes, persons of European descent may comprise less than one-half of the U.S. population.
  • In part the consequence of immigration, the U.S. is becoming a society comprised of diverse ethnic and racial groups. By 2020 those we call minorities today will constitute 36 percent of all Americans. We are less a homogeneous than a mosaic society.
  • More than 25 million current U.S. residents (nearly 10 percent of the population) were born outside the country. Of these, nearly one-half are of Hispanic origin.
  • The Hispanic population is younger than the U.S. average; by 2020, the median age of Hispanics will be 28.8, vs. 37.6 for the general population
  • In 1994, the "oldest old" (those 85 and over) represented about one percent of the population ó 3.6 Million. By 2020, that number is expected to nearly double.
  • The median age in 1994 was 33. It is expected to be 38 by 2020 ó aging about 1 to 1.5 years for every five.
  • The oldest Baby Boomers turned 50 in 1996. More of those considered elderly will be over the age of 75.

Information and Technology

  • In 1995, for the first time, Americans spent more money on computers than on televisions.
  • The number of cellular phones jumped from fewer than 1 million in 1985 to more than 90 million in 1998.
  • Driven in part by technology, the world's fund of information doubles every 2 to 2.5 years.
  • Scientific information doubles every five years. By the time a child born today completes college, the body of knowledge may have quadrupled. By the time he or she is age 50, it may have grown 32-fold.

Changes in Government and Regulation

  • Single issue politics (e.g., abortion, the environment, gay rights) is likely to grow.
  • Regulation may increase in reaction to the growth of enterprise and growth in technology.
  • Power continues to shift to state and local government. At the same time, global regulation is likely to increase.
  • The agenda for the federal government is moving toward health care and international competition.
  • We are witnessing changes in the way governments operate, with the increased integration of services ó a single portal through which services can be obtained.
  • Some of our access to government may be "self-service" through touch-tone telephones, kiosks, and the Internet.
  • Government agencies are forging links with the private sector in the form of outsourcing and partnerships

The Changing Nature of the Consumer

  • For-profit and nonprofit organizations alike are subject to increased feedback from the customer.
  • We want service on a 24/7 basis. We want it "now!"
  • There is a dramatic growth of consumer "clout." People have access to information, and they are using that information. By some estimates,technologically informed consumers constitute 20 percent of the population, some 200 Million people on the Internet, 80 Million of them in the United States.

Redefining the Term "Family"

In that so much of our work in the nonprofit sector is with families or impacts families, the changing way in which we define "family" is of special importance. Family no longer refers only to a unit comprised of mother/father/child(ren). Rather, family is more likely to be defined as:

  • Boomerang families (those in which children leave home and then return, sometimes more than once)
  • Unmarried couples living together
  • Blended families (what we used to call "step" families)
  • Gay families
  • Group living
  • Single-parent homes.

Some "Big Nexts"

In a book entitled, Next: Trends for the Near Future, by Matathis and Salzman, the authors suggest the following overarching factors which they predict will define our future in the next few years:

  • The ever more demanding consumer
  • An intensified search for security (we view our society ever more violent, despite statistics indicating a decrease in violent crime)
  • Global vs "hyperlocal" paradox (we know we must compete globally, but we long for the world of front porches and small neighborhoods)
  • Nostalgia vs. futurism (the more we know about the future, the more some of us want to re-create the world of Ozzie and Harriet)
  • Perpetual youth in an aging world ("old" is a pejorative term, always applied to someone older than we are)
  • The experience economy (we want to be thrilled, be it in pseudo-sports such as wrestling, in amusement parks, on our vacations).

The "So-What" Question

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available on trends. That does not mean, however, that we should opt to ignore the information; we do so at our organization's peril. Here's what I suggest:

  • If your organization does not have a scanning function in place, create one. It could be a committee or an individual or a department or a cross-departmental team. But the task of staying abreast of trends is essential.
  • Concentrate on those trends that are most likely to affect your organization and the people you serve. For each trend that you unearth, apply a rating scale of 1 - 5 (with 1 being "has almost no impact on us, and 5 being "may significantly affect us"). Then focus on the 4's and 5's as you develop or revise your organizational planning.
  • Begin to infuse the idea of environmental scanning into the way your organization does business. Invite a futurist to be a speaker at a board meeting or convention or major conference. Include an article on futures in your house publications. Emulate USA Today's practice of dropping "factoids" throughout your publications.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. In the years that I have been working with futurists, I have consistently been impressed by their attitude of hopefulness. They know that the real value of environmental scanning is to arm ourselves with information on which to shape the future that we want.

James P. Gelatt, PhD, is the author of Managing Nonprofits in the 21st Century and general editor of Aspen's Fund Raising Series for the 21st Century. He is the president of Prentice Associates, a management consulting company specializing in associations and other national nonprofits, and a past-president of the Greater Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Society of Association Executives.

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