Indepedent Sector's Future Lab: They Built It and They're Not Coming

October 21, 2009 //

By John Esterle

I recently got another email from Independent Sector trying to solicit input and ideas for Future Lab: An Ongoing Challenge for the Nonprofit Community to Chart a Vibrant 2020. The Lab is a well-intentioned effort to promote online dialogue and collaborative thinking that IS has clearly devoted considerable time, energy, and money to. The Lab is one part of IS’ Envisioning Our Future initiative that was kicked off in July with their Strategy Lab convening in Colorado.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone — including me — is taking up their invitation to participate online.

My non-participation brings to mind my own recent post about the challenge of people not leaving comments on blogs. So why haven’t I participated? Here’s some of what comes up for me:

  • Shyness about participating in such a high profile platform.
  • The lack of comments discourages me from making one of my own.
  • I am not a member of IS nor do I have any personal history with the organization that would prompt me to support them on a relationship level.
  • Doubts about the whole Envisioning Our Future effort.

All in all visiting the site has that sad quality of going to a party that no one has showed up for even though you’ve arrived fashionably late. I’m struck by how quickly a judgment can seemingly be rendered that makes such an elaborate online platform feel lifeless. And once that perception is there I think it’s hard to reverse.

Perhaps Independent Sector’s upcoming conference will spark people’s participation. My understanding is that the online exchange of ideas is supposed to be the fuel for a series of discussions at the conference (which I’ll be attending for the first time). I would imagine there’s some rethinking about that design going on at the moment, but it seems that the lack of participation in Future Lab provides a real opportunity for learning and dialogue about what makes for successful on-line and in-person engagements geared to promoting “a national conversation” that enables people to “work across fields” and be part of an “iterative process for problem solving. “

One final thought. Observing the level of participation so far in America’s Giving Challenge, recently launched by The Case Foundation, Causes on Facebook, and Parade Magazine, I wonder about the invitational quality of competition and tangible rewards. Would Future Lab be having a different result if it had been set up before the Strategy Lab? For instance, would there have been more buzz if the authors of the highest rated ideas would have been included in the invitation list to the Colorado summit? It was held at the Broadmoor Hotel after all.

Anyway, hindsight is easy but The Envisioning Our Future effort brings up a lot of questions about processes of invitation and engagement, on-line and in-person dialogue, co-creation and collaborative problem solving that are ripe for continued exploration and experimentation. With that in mind, I’m curious to see what the IS conference will be like and will no doubt have more thoughts to share about this effort afterward.


  1. Pia on October 30, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Hi John,

    Seems like you and Kari are noticing the same phenomenon, as her post on the Social Citizens blog ( about online platforms reflects your experience of the Independent Sector's ghost-town site. I remember you saying to me once, if you think you have a good idea/observation and you notice that somewhat over there is pointing it out too, then it must be on point!