My Association of Charitable Foundations conference talk.

Cassie Robinson.
11 min readNov 27, 2020

“Dear Cassie, such an inspiring talk today at the ACF conference, thank you so much, I have learnt a great deal from you and got really motivated for my own project. Now I better understand in what direction to drive the European philanthropy community and how to facilitate the discourse”

“LOVED your ACF session — a breath of fresh air. Just what was needed.’

I started the session by using a slightly adapted version of the embodied dreaming journey I took people on back in February at my Service Design in Gov keynote.

“I’m going to now invite you to close your eyes.

We are going to travel, in our imaginations, to 2030. But this is not to be the 2030 of the dystopia we can more readily imagine, but rather a place we hear far less of, the 2030 that turned out OK. I invite you to imagine that the years between now and then are a time of remarkable social transformation, which was unimaginable at the end of 2019 and in the first few months of 2020.

I invite you to imagine that a cascade of change was unleashed, some triggered by crises like the Covid-19 Pandemic that reset our patterns of work, travel and showed us how much communities can come together. Other change has been triggered by the School Strikes for Climate, the Sunrise Movement and other local but connected projects and movements across the globe, so that a momentum has built that has become unstoppable. The pressure for this positive change has come from business, from local government, from communities, from schools and universities. A hunger for a new culture has built and spread rapidly after a few global crises that jolted us into the collaborative action we needed.

Cities have been reimagined, and new relationships exist between rural communities and their nearest towns. As cars were designed out of city centres, huge amounts of space in need of alternative uses has opened up. The change that’s unfolded has been underpinned by social, climate and racial justice, community involvement and empowerment, and has been focused on building a new, just, diverse, more resilient economy from the ground up. It’s been a 10 years characterised by remarkable change that future generations will sing great songs about, and tell great tales about the courageous and focused people of this time. It’s a time when we feel we’ve been doing everything we could possibly have done.

Take your imaginations for a walk through the streets, the public spaces, the village community, the High Streets, the city centres, parliament, a community space, the local park, the health centre of this 2030 of your imagining. Use all your senses, what can you see……. feel……touch… smell…..hear…..taste of this future world?

Stay in that moment.”

“Now you can open your eyes, and I invite you to describe what you saw, to draw or to write, or both, something of what you imagined. The essence of it. Something specific from it. It could be as simple as a word. And if you can, please share it on Twitter, with the tag #SocialDreaming.”

If we had time now, I’d invite you to take what you imagined and do a backcasting activity, asking “what will get us there….? using this schema from Bill Sharpe:

  • Every day …
  • Then ONE day …
  • Because of that …
  • And because of that
  • Until, finally …

This is how I interpret what Bill Sharpe calls the “Patterning of Hope.”

I think of it as scaffolding hope. All the actions, all the considerations, all the design touch points, all the grants we give, all the ways we resource capacity, we are patterning all of the time. Everything we are doing today imbues our future consciousness.

This is important to consider for several reasons.

I was co-hosting a roundtable at the Bank of England earlier this year, talking about the future of civil society and was struck by how the room only seemed able to imagine civil society as being about delivering services.

And I’ve found many people struggle to articulate a plausible, desirable picture of society in the medium term or in one or two generations time. All of us find it really easy to describe the apocalypse.

The hippocampus, the part of the brain most linked to the imagination, is, of all the parts of the brain, uniquely vulnerable to cortisol. When we are stressed, anxious, traumatised, isolated, our hippocampus can shrink by as much as 20%, resulting in a contraction in our ability to think hopefully about the future, and in our imaginative capacity.

So given what’s happening all around us, I can understand why our imagination isn’t at its best! It’s still a concern though, because without that ability to imagine, without being able to perceive alternative futures, we don’t have the pull to transition from the old to the new, or to keep creating and building.

It’s interesting to think about how much the technology world invests in its version of this — the smart city, the smart home, driverless cars, but the social sector, civil society, we don’t really do this.

What would happen If we positioned civil society further upstream instead of perpetually pushing it downstream only as the problem solver?

How might the world be shaped differently if the wisdom in communities was used to shape not just to respond?

This is also important in relation to who gets to shape the future so that different communities and voices influence how we adapt, renew, recover, reset beyond the first waves of the crisis.

Image from Scott and Susan Smith.

So what is getting in the way of civil society doing this work? Aside from the stress and trauma felt in communities and the sector (and that really isn’t to be underestimated), we are hard wired for short-termism.

We also have many blindspots. As Dan Lockton says — “Our narratives, our understanding of ourselves and the systems we are in, are limited by enormity, complexity, or invisibility.”

And as funders, we move the dial, but often not enough. We land on what feels like a new way of doing things, but it’s often just making things better in the existing system, or not considering the wider context enough.

A good example of this is the way the sector thinks that participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, citizen juries are an answer to some of the challenges we have. They can be amazing and empowering, and are a necessary part in the jigsaw, but they don’t show you a future you want to surge towards. They are not the end point. Forums like this will not get us the quantum leaps that we need.

Images by Dan Hill.

User-centred design is another one that I’ve seen funders adopt, and is used commonly now, alongside co-design. However, like Uber has shown, what is good for an individual is definitely not always good for the community, or for the planet. Doing everything by consensus doesn’t work in complex systems. Being ‘user-centred’ is not the right approach for everything, as articulated here.

Image from Superflux.

And whilst it’s really important that we develop much better data capability in civil society, it is also key to remember this. Alongside an awareness of the biases that exist in historical data.

Image from Scott and Susan Smith.

As Madeleine Albright said —

“We have 21st century challenges,

Being evaluated using 20th century ideas,

And being responded to with 19th century tools.”

As funders, do we need to rethink some of our models and approaches to change?

Image from Superflux.

And as Superflux suggests, what if the act of collective imagination was a verb, and building the capacity for it was a public service?

That’s what we’re trying to do with our Emerging Futures Fund at The National Lottery Community Fund. And links back to the idea of ‘scaffolding hope.’

Which we’ve conceived of as a way of seeding an infrastructure. So that we get to this.

We need communities across the UK, and for wider civil society, to have a stake in the future, to determine who owns in.

We recently made 52 grants across the UK to people working at different scales, from the micro-local to the National. And 60% of these are groups that The National Lottery Community Fund has never funded before.

These grants — that are enquiries not projects — are the start of seeding some of that infrastructure, with new narratives emerging, and new voices shaping the future.

We will have stories of different scales to tell — Gentle Radical covers 5 streets in a neighbourhood in Cardiff, Positive Carrickfergus a small town in Northern Ireland, and Good For Nothing at a City level in Bath.

All the Wales funded enquiries.

We will have collective narratives to tell about whole regions and countries, where we can link up narratives and imaginaries emerging across the different grantees.

Some of the grantees are feeding their content directly into town and city planning — working with local councils in place to shape the futures of that place.

Different grant holders that together shape a new narrative about land, ownership, ways of living.

We’ll have systemic narratives to share too — where different grantees, and the alternatives they are creating and imagining, when linked up, will tell stories about deep transformations and what is possible.

Some of the grantholders working with communities to enquire about work, and its future.

And thematic narratives about a future space — about what has shifted during the pandemic, like patterns of work, and what that means for communities going forward.

We’re lucky too that some of the grantees are already connected in to, or are themselves, well regarded and inspirational content platforms — so that what comes out of the cohort gets shared more widely, and can be mainstreamed. As part of the infrastructure growing over time, we want to attract others to it, and we know to do this we need to share what communities are imagining and dreaming up across the UK.

As mentioned earlier, when thinking about who gets to shape the future, we’re committed to a diversity of voice, perception and experience being centred in this work.

And most exciting of all is seeing how these grants are facilitating entirely new things to be created. Like the Centre for Knowledge Equity setting up the first ever UK Imagination Observatory bringing together lived, learned and practice experience. The Design Council working with Local Trust and many of their communities to start a new Community Designers Network — a very practical way of tooling communities up to shape their futures. And the Humber + Wolds Rural Action group redefining what that layer of infrastructure means for the future.

And key to all of this is the infrastructure we are building around it.What else we are investing in. A Community Toolkit for any community to use to listen, narrate and imagine together. Skills building sessions with communities so that ‘community foresight’ becomes an adopted practice. Digital tools — a Slack group, an online platform and digital archive for all the ‘enquiries’ and the content they are producing. And importantly, we’re working with colleagues across the fund, in local teams, to link up grantholders with other activity that is happening in places near them.



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss -