Planning for an unknown future

Illustration by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Probably the greatest challenge that leaders face today is how to act decisively in times of radical uncertainty. How do we cut through the deep fog of unknowns and not become paralyzed by the unpredictability of our world?

On Oct. 7, the unthinkable happened. Since then, we have been in a new world of lost bearings and open-ended questions. And yet, the circumstances demanded, and continue to require, decisive action. 

When disaster hit, Israeli civil society, the philanthropic sector and the nonprofit ecosystem rose to the challenge, taking the lead and working tirelessly to meet the urgent needs as they arose. The extent of the destruction, however, is unlike anything Israel has faced in its 75 years of existence. Recovery and rebuilding are going to require substantial resources and coordinated efforts. 

Moreover, this crisis has uncovered deep structural issues in many sectors in Israel: in governance, health care, economic resilience, education, civil service and shared society. We don’t want to just recover – we want to build toward a stronger, more resilient Israel. The type of reforms needed are broad and deep, and philanthropy should conduct a process of long-term thinking to identify what its contribution must be in these times.  

The uncertainty around us doesn’t make this easy. How can we plan when we don’t know what the future will bring? Should we think of a reality in which the war ends swiftly, or one in which the war becomes a broad and protracted regional conflict? Can we count on a government response aligned with social needs, or will Israeli governance remain dysfunctional? Will the social cohesion we are seeing during this crisis remain, or will it vanish? 

To be able to plan and think ahead in this uncertain context, we have embarked on a process of “future scenarios.” 

Scenarios are not predictions but rather narratives about the future, designed to expand our thinking and systematically deconstruct the uncertainties before us and their possible solutions. They ultimately serve to strip away layers of the unknown — where possible — and arrange the rest, enabling us to make decisions with clarity and confidence.

Scenarios are the most robust tools that organizations and communities can use in situations like the present, and our organizations have experience with this approach. JFN conducted a community-wide scenario exercise at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping funders and communal organizations prepare for the post-pandemic future. 

PollyLabs is an Israeli-American think tank and venture studio that combines the best practices of the corporate world with a deep understanding of the social impact space. In recent weeks, PollyLabs convened a group of experts and leaders to craft a set of scenarios that outline the different futures that we could be confronting in the next 12-18 months. 

Of the many uncertainties we face, two major uncertainties will determine the near-term future and Israel’s subsequent recovery needs: the degree of conflict escalation and its duration; and the extent to which Israel’s internal stability will be maintained. Based on these uncertainties, JFN and PollyLabs envisioned four plausible scenarios to expand our thinking, unearth hidden risks and possibilities and develop a set of “no-regret moves” (strategies with merit regardless of the scenario). 

JFN and PollyLabs have teamed up to use the work that PollyLabs has been developing as a tool for the philanthropic community to think strategically about the future of its work in Israel. We aren’t trying to predict or assign probabilities to each scenario — we’re doing our best to ensure that we are prepared to respond effectively to all of them.

The process, to be jointly facilitated by PollyLabs and JFN, will analyze the implications of each scenario for different areas, including mental health and trauma, education, economy and employment, and shared society.  In conversations that we expect to be “thoughtful but tachlis,” we want to identify actions that funders and nonprofits can take today to help each sector come out of the crisis stronger and better. 

This resource will aid organizations in both designing a robust recovery approach, adaptable to various scenarios, and identifying choices that enhance the likelihood of realizing the specific future we collectively aspire to see.

The scenarios and a guide on how to use them will be available for the community online through JFN and PollyLabs. We also expect that the results of this process will inform broader conversations among those committed to help Israel recover. We encourage every individual and organization committed to planning for “the day after” to embrace future thinking. You are invited to utilize the foundational scenarios if they meet your needs — or to adopt a different approach that better suits your strategy.

We are all in a somber mood these days, but thinking about the future, imagining a different reality and working together to bring it about gives us a degree of optimism. No planning process is a silver bullet, but structured future thinking coupled with decisive collective action can guide us towards better futures despite immense uncertainties. 

In that sense, this exercise is profoundly Jewish and deeply Zionist — for Zionism is about reclaiming agency and giving our people the tools to master their own destiny, no matter what history throws at us. 

 Andrés Spokoiny is the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, and Bar Pereg is the founder and CEO of PollyLabs.