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The Future of the Nonprofit Sector in the Boston Region*
David D. Chrislip

Since the early 1990s, countries, regions and communities have used scenario thinking as a tool for effecting societal change. In a civic scenario project, a group of citizens and civic leaders, drawn from a broad range of sectors and organizations, works together to understand what is happening, what might happen and what should happen in their community, region, or country. They then act together on that shared understanding and vision.

By making different yet plausible assumptions about important but uncertain factors affecting the future, stakeholders construct a series of stories -- scenarios -- about how the future might unfold. These provocative, divergent and relevant stories expose challenging dimensions of possible futures that communities and regions may face in coming years. By developing a deeper understanding of possible future environments, communities and regions can make better, more grounded and realistic decisions.

Communities and regions use scenarios in two ways: as a catalyst for working together and for decision making. As a catalyst for collaboration, scenarios offer a means for creating a common agenda for moving forward. Mutual learning and exploration build shared understanding of possible future environments. Scenarios serve several purposes. Scenarios can help a community or region identify an emerging public agenda and build agreement on concerns that need to addressed. The stories offer a starting point or artifact to react to and build on. They inform the visioning process by helping stakeholders identify qualities or aspects of the future they would like to create or avoid. Stakeholders test strategies by evaluating which options work best in different future environments.

In the Boston region, the Goldberg Seminars brought together a wide range of stakeholders to develop strategies for coping with revolutionary changes in state and federal funding of human services. Prior to the introduction of scenarios, participants tended to analyze needs and opportunities based on well-established assumptions and, so, considered a narrow range of fairly predictable responses. The scenarios helped open up people’s minds encouraging them to think more deeply and creatively about what futures might unfold.