I was told there would be flying cars

Creating the future at scale - with members.

In the past we explored membership innovation in journalism and politics. And lamented the lack of it in many organizations.

Examples of membership innovation

A trend: political campaigns and journalism startups rethink membership. Political campaign engagement – in the Bernie campaign of 2015-2016 at least – was built around a sense of belonging. People contribute skills and time in meaningful ways. This wasn’t just aa “pay $27 and you’re a member of something” model. It was about doing work, contributing, giving more of yourself. It meant belonging to something bigger than a group.

News companies are doing interesting work with membership. Some of this is simply using “membership” in place of subscription. But many startups and nonprofits have been testing membership as more than money: events, ways to engage in reporting, sourcing stories and asking questions. Membership Puzzle explores the intersection of membership and news. Team Hearken has been helping news organizations become meaningful to communities by helping communities find more meaning in the news.

The other notable thread I’m pulling on in thinking about the future of membership runs through for-profits. Think about the health sector (CrossFit, SoulCycle and Peloton to name a few). You’re not just getting access to a workout. You’re joining a movement. Together, members are changing themselves and their community. Casper ter Kuile has written about these companies and other examples at the intersection of belonging and membership in The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices. Great book. Casper digs into the societal conditions that make it possible for companies and organizations to (for good or ill) rethink what it is to belong (and be a member).

Let’s ask a another question:

How does membership create the future?

We’ve been looking at how membership innovation may contribute to stronger organizations.

But is that the right question now?

What if, instead, we looked at how organizations can (could? should?) create the future by being a source of futures thinking and imagination?

Politics and public policy is a debate over the future. That’s especially true in a world beset by climate change and COVID-19. The rise of authoritarian populist leaders is reflection of imagination and innovation in retreat. Change approaches. We fear it. We crave the idea of security. Even if we know (or suspect) it’s a false security.

Well, that sounds like politics. Let’s elect better leaders. What does this have to do with the organizations we run? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything?

Can organizations scale futures thinking?

A colleague, Márquez Rhyne at Narrative Initiative, was talking to me about futures work and it’s impact. We need, Márquez said, more people (many more people) to take seriously what’s possible. Not just what’s probable.

We all believe we’re creative beings with active imaginations. But do people have the tools to bring imagination to their community, state and national politics, and public policy? No. Not really.

Consider the magnitude of economic, political and social change wrought actual proposals in the Green New Deal. We can imagine potential bad outcomes, of course.

Now consider the actual policy proposals in the Green New Deal. Ending carbon-based energy production. Job training. Health care access.

These are bold transformative proposals. But they’re shot down as impossible because the conversation is dominated by past actions and examples. We end up talking around used futures with language of probability. Not possibility.

We use language about working for change but aren’t serious. Members see this and don’t engage.

But the possible is, well, possible. If we want it and show people how to get it.

The initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many parts of the U.S. showed that creative and equity-driven policies are possible. Many state and local governments implemented policies that had long been shot down as impossible.

Essential workers were paid more and offered child care. Eviction freezes were put in place. Unemployment benefits were increased nationally and locally. Some places are rethinking what’s possible:

The COVID-19 Policy Response Project is tracking a wide range of local, state and national responses to COVID-19. Many of which would have seemed improbable if not impossible before March. And many have been advocated in the past.

Of course, most of what’s been done in response to COVID-19 has been temporary. Even if conditions on the ground haven’t changed (e.g. unemployment is greater, not less; essential workers are still at work during a pandemic; over 40% of U.S. renters are at risk of eviction).

Vu Le has written that nonprofit and philanthropy’s lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice. Alina Siegfried asks progressives to spend more time with the possible and break up with rationality.

I’d say the lack of imagination is much broader than orgs or progressives. It’s all of us.

Teaching (and modeling) the practice and skills of futures work across organizations may be one solution.

So what do we do?

I don’t know. But we can’t leave futures work to corporations, governments and militaries. Can we infuse and scale imagination in productive ways? How? Is anyone doing/practicing imagination with members? How is it going? What are they learning?

Look for a few examples in the next newsletter. In the meantime, click reply and send your ideas and questions.

Thanks for reading!

Now, about those flying cars…


About this newsletter: If you’ve been around for a while (thank you!) then you may recall subscribing to the Bright Ideas newsletters. That’s this. I wrote and shared a lot about nonprofit management and technology. And increasingly looked at the role of membership in organizations, associations and journalism.

It all may have seemed rather random. And the publishing schedule over the past 12 months has been irregular at best.

I had a think. Not so much about theme and focus for the newsletter. But about why I do the work I do in the first place. And the principles (or pillars) settled on were these:

  • Community: healthier, stronger, more just.

  • This work should make the world a better, more just place.

  • Power matters. And it is abundant. Identify and expand power.

  • I do this work for a reason. You do what you do for a reason. We each have a point of view and want to see it realized. Don’t shy away from that.

  • There is value in diverse ideas and fields of study. Just as there is value in deep expertise.

  • Sensemaking and processing different ideas is an always important skill. Probably more so now as we face, collectively and individually, an uncertain future.

This newsletter reflects – and refracts – a synthesis of these pillars. If there’s a theme here it’s about the future of community. And future communities. How do we make sense of change? How do we imagine change? How do we craft change in ways that are abundant, beautiful and hopeful?

I hope that sounds interesting. And that you’ll stick around and share some time reading and perhaps working together.