Profiles in VUCA

Before we begin our conversation, help shift our thinking from for-profit to nonprofit organizations. What should we keep in mind?

Firstly, corporations or businesses and nonprofits may be legally and sometimes culturally different, but they are connected.

Business people and corporations are often the funders and founders of philanthropies and social impact initiatives. The more financial gains you see in the business sector, the more you see corporate responsibility offices emerge. There’s been a recent shift for corporations to be more socially conscious, explicitly around social justice, innovation, and the environment.

Secondly, nonprofits tend to be disproportionately affected by VUCA because they often serve our most vulnerable populations who are most susceptible to the negative effects of VUCA.

For instance, if we’re talking about global climate change, nonprofits are going to be the boots on the ground trying to mitigate the effects of climate change and trying to put a human face on all of these discussions and disasters. Plus, in collaboration with the public sector, they are the ones envisioning new policies and interventions.

However, nonprofits tend not to have the latitude to think long term. That’s the third point. They tend to be constrained by crisis management, funding requirements, limited experimentation, and political cycles.

One of my goals is to help large and small nonprofits understand how Strategic Foresight and futurism can help them be more disruptive and more strategic, and give them freedom to advance their agendas. Not only that, it can actually help us re-imagine how a nonprofit works.

 

So what work do you do with nonprofits?

I manage a small consulting firm called Bickham Innovation Catalysts, LLC. I’ve worked with more than 70 organizations over the course of my career, primarily in four areas: 1) grant writing/fund development and innovation, 2) research to identify new talent and best practices, 3) strategic planning, and 4) executive coaching.

Currently, I work as an innovation and development strategist for United Way of the Capitol Area in addition to working with clients in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. My plan is to work with national and global entities dedicated to futurism and foresight. I am also one of the founding members of the Mississippi Futures Fund, an emerging collaboration to advance Strategic Foresight and resource development in our state.

 

You’ve been working with nonprofits for more than 20 years. How did you decide on that path?

I was mentored by people who were involved in the civil rights movement and African American churches, essentially social justice activists. They were very dear to me, and I ended up following their path because that was all I knew.

Moreover, I never fit into traditional 9 to 5 corporate culture. I’m more production-oriented, doing whatever it takes to complete a project without unnecessary procedures getting in the way. I guess I might call myself an organic futurist who was always driven by possibilities beyond my immediate environment of thought and mode of operations.

Many of my mentors worked for these kinds of social impact and social justice organizations, and even spent their free time on their own social impact projects. They were visionaries, and highly transcendent in how they thought. They knew the battles they fought and sacrifices they made would affect generations to come. However, they were so civically minded that they didn’t see the opportunity to support themselves and their families while accomplishing those social impact goals.

If I had to do it over again, I would have focused on being an entrepreneur and philanthropist in a bigger sense—creating wealth that I could then pour into the causes I’m passionate about. In communities of color, we tend to miss opportunities to create our own wealth, including commercializing our creativity and intellect. This often makes us dependent on others rather than being true partners on equal footing.

 

How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?

 

Nonprofits generally strive for systemic change or significant change in the lives of individuals. That kind of change takes a long time and a lot of effort, as we often have to balance the local and immediate with the global and geopolitical. The slow pace of this change doesn’t match with the fast pace of change in technology and dissemination of information. That in itself is a challenge.

Let’s take a look at education, a sector in which I do a lot of work.

We have organizations like the United Way, and leaders in Jackson Public Schools looking for ways to prime children for success in a fast-paced global economy. These kids are digital natives who can access rapidly changing information online. And yet they are measured against an educational system that’s based on linear, industrial-age mindsets and adult mores.

We have a lot more discussion today around virtual learning and the autonomous learner, but getting the entire education system to respond accordingly would take an immense amount of time and energy. Some entities are experiencing mission fatigue with education and other impact areas.

This is just one example of the juxtaposition of the fast pace of change in the environment and the slow pace of change in the systems and ethical architectures we created a long time ago. It’s a big challenge for nonprofits.

There’s tremendous and cataclysmic uncertainty in grant writing and overall funding. We’re actually seeing a paradigm shift where you can no longer depend on public funding, and private partners are facing closures or leadership changes. Philanthropy itself is being challenged around its own racism and insularity. Additionally, social impact investment and other mechanisms will challenge traditional nonprofits.

This funding uncertainty is a huge challenge, but it’s also an opportunity—it’s forcing us to rethink the existing models that are failing. Out of necessity, we have to take more radical approaches to the issues we are tackling.

This is the impetus behind the Mississippi Futures Fund: to ask different questions and come up with new answers.

Take for example the question of how to prepare children for success in the 21st century. The answer, through nonprofits, was typically after-school programs that focus on coding and other STEAM activities. The problem is, in Mississippi, black children are the lowest attaining students in the whole country. The after-school STEAM approach would simply be playing catch up.

We know we have to leap-frog. I like to call it sustainable and immersive leapfrogging. We know we have to embrace innovation, and transcend the 21st century—but how? I do not mean skipping over fundamental frameworks and dynamics. I mean a permanent futuristic capability.

We are creating the Mississippi Futures Fund to answer this question, to better understand the emerging landscape, and to figure out how to build our desired future in collaboration with local and global partners.

Intergenerational poverty is a complex issue. Historically, the focus was on a couple of areas, like individual behaviors (e.g. having children out of wedlock) or policy changes (e.g. providing incentives to businesses so they can pay a family a sustainable wage).

But none of that has really worked. For the first time in the United States, the current generation is not expected to do as well as the previous one. That’s a very complex and shocking phenomenon. We’re still looking for answers anywhere from a focus on self-sufficiency to policy changes to the role of the 1%.

This is especially urgent for Mississippi, a state that’s already the poorest in the country. Many people come to the table with these disadvantages but also have tremendous creative capital.

It’s a profound challenge. We need futurism and Strategic Foresight to solve it because this is something we have never faced. As a country, we don’t know how to deal with this precedent.  We can be informed by the past, but we can’t rely on it.

Nonprofits tend to be forced to have explicit measurements, outcomes, and metrics, and so does the for-profit world. These metrics do not lend themselves to ambiguity, discovery, and exploration. In communities of color, there seems to be penalty for those characteristics—a penalty for making mistakes.

Funders want to see the number of people being educated, people getting into the workforce, and the number of folks getting out of poverty. These are unambiguous metrics.

Creating the spaces to explore ambiguity, to say “I don’t know” and not be penalized by it—it’s a big question being asked within the nonprofit world.

There’s also ambiguity in the way we view ourselves and each other.

The demographics of this nation are changing to be more multiethnic and multiracial, but there are few opportunities for us to explore this change without demonizing or dehumanizing each other.

A concrete personal example: after President Trump’s election, I had discussions with friends about the result and how it turned out to be a disheartening revelation of where the country is.

But as a result, I began to think, “How much time have I spent getting to know conservative groups and explaining innovation, globalism, and all these realities and values I believed in? How much do I really know beyond my own prejudices, biases, and my own deep anger at the tenor of the country?”

So it’s not just about a political, social, or intellectual framework: these ambiguities rest in our identities and our biases. We hear people saying folks with different viewpoints aren’t even people! That’s violent, genocidal. I mean, we might disagree, but I’m not going to dehumanize people for political or any other type of expediency.

We are discussing something called Civic Futures to empower ourselves to rethink the common good and creative and moral leadership. What is it that we have to do now to ensure that the nation and world we desire in 20-40 years is healthy, inclusive, just, and imaginative? This is one of the areas where foresight can help—it begins with addressing your own internal biases and identity in a way that’s not threatening but nonetheless provocative.

 

When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?

In and of itself, the idea of VUCA makes me feel overwhelmed; I’d rather bury my head in my covers and go back to sleep.

But in the context of Strategic Foresight, VUCA is thrilling. It allows me to move beyond trying to repair brokenness to an actual preferred future. That’s a transformative notion: we can build the future we want. VUCA is an opportunity to bring to bear all the experience I’ve had to amplify the work I do for the institutions and communities I care so much about.

It also gives us the opportunity to gather insights and strategies from members of our community who don’t have a voice.

For example, I had a grandmother who persevered through hardships and was able to raise her children—and her grandchildren—with nothing more than an 8th grade education. But few people asked her about her life, how she saw the future, and her approach to making decisions.

There is a great treasure of information in these parts of society that are historically ignored, or even maligned. Now there’s an opportunity to bring together the power of foresight and this cache of untapped knowledge to address the questions that arise because of VUCA.

It’s exciting.

 

How do you react to VUCA?

At The Futures School, we applaud David’s drive to rethink the status quo, and create something entirely novel when faced with massive challenges.

It’s a key attribute of a transformative leader. What kind of VUCA leader are you? Take our quiz to find out.