Note from Jeff: After taking an unexpectedly long hiatus from The Duty of Foresight column, it is a great pleasure to resume my writing here with a new article to challenge your thinking! My thanks to everyone at Association Adviser for this opportunity. As always, I invite your comments and look forward to reading them.
Today, September 26, 2022, is Day 1,000 of The Turbulent Twenties [T20s Day 1000]. It is a significant milestone that affords a much-needed moment to pause and reflect on the profound and often painful impact the last 2+ years of relentless upheaval have had on our world, our organizations, our stakeholders, and each of us.
With the arrival of T20s Day 1000, our community enters a transitional space within which boards, their staff partners, and other contributors must determine together how they will guide their organizations through the rest of this turbulent decade. The “discontinuous next,” i.e., the conditions of radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk unleashed by the pandemic and intensified by its still unfolding consequences, will not dissipate with the end of 2022, as I once thought it might. If anything, the discontinuous next is just getting started. In this increasingly unforgiving context, there is a foundational question that boards must ask themselves: what will our successors say about us? This provocative question pushes association boards to shift their mindsets and focus their attention on how their actions, rather than their words, will help shape a different and better future for the people who will follow them in the years and decades ahead, including future humans they will never know personally.
Among the immediate actions that association boards must take is to become fit for purpose by setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF]. At the heart of SGF is the board’s duty of foresight, a term I coined in 2014, to capture association boards’ commitment to learn as much as possible with the future. Over the last eight years, I am gratified to report that both the term and its original definition have contributed beneficially to reshaping our community’s conversation about the most important work of boards.
The Next Definition
After more than 32 months of painful pandemic lessons, however, and with a clear-eyed recognition of the severe struggles still to come, the T20s Day 1000 milestone is the right moment to formally introduce the next definition of the board’s duty of foresight.
The duty of foresight requires association boards to stand up for their successors’ futures through intentional learning, short-term sacrifice, and long-term action.
To deconstruct how I arrived at this reframed definition and share some of its implications for association boards, let me make three critical points:
1. This definition focuses boards on duty—The original definition placed its emphasis on foresight as an essential focus area for board attention. This was a suitable choice in 2014 when the notion that boards had a unique responsibility to deeply and consistently address the future was novel. Over the last eight years, and especially since the beginning of this decade, a different requirement has emerged: the need to think critically, empathically, and soberly about the world we are leaving to our successors. The next definition crystallizes the idea that association boards have a duty to “stand up” for successors by being constructive contributors to addressing the complex social, technological, economic, environmental and political (STEEP) factors already inflicting lasting damage on the world they will inherit from us.
2. This definition raises the stakes for learning—While learning with the future may no longer be the central theme of the board’s duty of foresight, it is now an even more critical responsibility for association boards. The next definition insists that association boards concentrate their intentional learning on grappling with multiple plausible futures for a more diverse group of successors. This shift demands that boards not limit their foresight inquiry to a cursory examination of favorable or preferred futures that inspire them. Instead, boards must force themselves to experience the genuine anxiety and fear of unfavorable and unthinkable futures to build their resilience, strengthen their resolve to sacrifice today, and act with a robust long-term view.
3. This definition impels boards to act ethically—The grounding of their fiduciary duties in statutes, regulations and case law creates a legal mandate for association boards with which they are compelled to comply. But neither compulsion nor compliance is a sustainable source of the motivation and momentum association boards will need as they continue to confront wicked problems throughout The Turbulent Twenties and beyond. In contrast, the next definition’s wellspring of renewable energy for consequential action is grounded in our shared humanity. Unlike fiduciary duties, fulfilling the duty of foresight remains a choice for association boards, and it is a profoundly ethical and moral choice that impels boards to direct their agency toward creating beneficial and positive-sum outcomes for stakeholders and successors over the long term.
Why Next/Next Month
You may wonder why I have used the phrase “the next definition” throughout this article. The answer is simple: this is the first major update I have made to the duty of foresight in eight years, and I know it will not be the last. T20s Day 1000 marks the end of this decade’s beginning and serves as a reminder that there are still more than 2,600 turbulent days yet to come before this decade is over. The evolution of the duty of foresight will remain inextricably intertwined with the accelerating transformation of our world, our association community, and our boards.
The duty of foresight is, after all, a “next” practice. Next practices are forward-looking approaches and ideas designed to challenge and liberate our community from its orthodox beliefs while creating new habits of mind among association decision-makers. To have their desired impact, however, next practices cannot be static. Instead, they must be strengthened through integrating new learning, and I remain fully committed to pursuing that vital work.
To that end, in October, I will build on themes from this column with Part I of a two-part series on the six toughest decisions association boards must make. Until then, thank you for reading and please stay well.
About The Author
Jeff De Cagna, FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.