An open lab for future skills

How can the foundation sector become more attractive to future generations? A laboratory is aiming to inspire them with transparent communication and experiments.

There are no figu­res for the future. In fact, the future couldn’t be more uncer­tain. This is how the Jacobs Foun­da­tion puts it in the summary of its Future Skills study from 2020: ‘Climate change, geopo­li­ti­cal power shifts, the long-term impact of the coro­na­vi­rus pande­mic – many current trends make the future highly uncer­tain.’ The past and present are known; we learn from expe­ri­ence. But what skills will we, our child­ren and our grand­child­ren need 30 years from now? The study concludes that there are three basic skills which enable child­ren and young people to shape the future: knowing, wanting and doing. Konrad Weber, Theresa Gehrin­ger and Sandro Alva­rez-Hummel have asked them­sel­ves simi­lar ques­ti­ons about the foun­da­tion sector. 

What can be done if the sector isn’t progres­sing? They point out that, although we are aware of many issues, the sector often doesn’t move forward boldly enough. Further­more, the main play­ers in the sector tend to keep to them­sel­ves. ‘We are keen to help shape the foun­da­tion sector because we still see a lot of poten­tial here,’ says Alva­rez-Hummel. ‘We would like to contri­bute, and the idea of a foun­da­tion lab is a first real step towards this. It is an expe­ri­ment inten­ded to last 1000 days.’

Konrad Weber (links), Sandro Alvarez Hummelund Theresa Gehringer setzenmit 1000 Tagen Stiftungslaboreinen neuen Impuls.

Konrad Wager (left), Sandro Alva­rez Hummel and Theresa Gehrin­ger are getting things going with 1000 days of the foun­da­tion lab.

Co-crea­tive approach

The three young initia­tors, all millen­ni­als, mostly commu­ni­ca­ted through digi­tal chan­nels during the foun­da­tion lab’s concept deve­lo­p­ment phase, which lasted one and a half years. They all come from diffe­rent busi­ness back­grounds and have a wealth of expe­ri­ence in their fields. Konrad Weber is a stra­tegy consul­tant and New Work specia­list with exten­sive jour­na­lism expe­ri­ence. Theresa Gehrin­ger is a foun­da­tion expert with a PhD and has worked for various foun­da­ti­ons and nonpro­fit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. Sandro Alva­rez-Hummel, a crowd­fun­ding and campaign expert, is invol­ved with Wema­keit and is writing a disser­ta­tion on colla­bo­ra­tion stra­te­gies of foun­da­ti­ons. Gehrin­ger and Alva­rez-Hummel also serve the inte­rests of the sector on the board of the Verei­ni­gung junger Stiftungsexpert:innen, the asso­cia­tion of young foun­da­tion experts. Between them, the three initia­tors can fall back on a wealth of expe­ri­ence and a broad reper­toire of methods.

Good­bye, rigid struc­tures; hello, digi­tal approaches

It’s not about a new solu­tion inten­ded to exist for deca­des, nor is it about crea­ting new struc­tures. Rather, it is a kind of play­ing field that the three of them are making available to the sector. It is meant to be fun, with the parti­ci­pants working on speci­fic support measu­res, ideas, stimuli and inspi­ra­tion in an enjoya­ble way. ‘As a digi­tal expe­ri­men­tal space, the foun­da­tion lab fosters a spirit of inno­va­tion and hones the digi­tal skills of members from the sector,’ explains Weber. ‘Crea­tive minds can work toge­ther in the labo­ra­tory on deve­lo­ping new solu­ti­ons to complex real-world chal­lenges. This not only gives rise to new solu­ti­ons but also promo­tes criti­cal and analy­ti­cal thin­king and emotio­nal intel­li­gence among members of the foun­da­tion sector.’ 

1000 days of experiments

The initia­tors are curious to see what the 1000 days of the foun­da­tion lab will bring. Theresa Gehrin­ger says: ‘We are exci­ted to see what we can achieve with our fellow thin­kers in these 1000 days.’ It should be enough time to gather and conso­li­date exis­ting know­ledge but also come up with new ideas: the team is convin­ced of this. To ensure that all employees of an orga­ni­sa­tion bene­fit equally, it makes a lot of sense to involve ever­yone at all levels – which means the barriers to invol­vement must be low. They don’t just want to bring toge­ther people from within the sector but also those asso­cia­ted with it. Alva­rez-Hummel: ‘We consider “approa­ching and listening to each other” to be a future skill.’ He adds: ‘The foun­da­tion lab is a digi­tal expe­ri­men­tal space with a stage for the Swiss foun­da­tion sector. It is meant to encou­rage doing rather than thin­king.’ 

With brain, heart and muscles

Brain: the lab is an expe­ri­men­tal space for colla­bo­ra­tive thin­king. Selec­ted ques­ti­ons are brought to the lab table, where they are scru­ti­ni­sed to deve­lop highly prac­ti­cal solu­ti­ons in colla­bo­ra­tion with a volun­t­ary online commu­nity. Nothing happens behind closed doors, with poten­tial solu­ti­ons being presen­ted and deba­ted. Anyone can get involved.

#inspi­ra­tion #fun

Heart: the expe­ri­ments in the lab are meant to be fun. People with diffe­rent exper­tise are brought toge­ther via New Work approa­ches. And the time is ripe for it: faced with ever-chan­ging social chal­lenges, many people are eager to colla­bo­rate and work on new solutions.

#inspi­ra­tion #spass

Muscles: there is strength in numbers, espe­ci­ally when people colla­bo­rate. The three experts are lever­aging this strength for the sector, brea­king down manage­ment hier­ar­chies by opening the lab to ever­yone. They are not compe­ting with anyone and are sharing their know­ledge and metho­do­lo­gi­cal expertise.


Push and pull

‘It’s not about bull­do­zing into the sector and shaking things up,’ empha­si­ses Sandro Alva­rez-Hummel. ‘Instead, we want to actively contri­bute to action areas that have alre­ady been iden­ti­fied.’ Toge­ther with repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from the foun­da­tion sector, they are plan­ning to estab­lish an advi­sory board to gather insights and build on them in a co-crea­tive process. And in addi­tion to just iden­ti­fy­ing action areas, they want to encou­rage invol­vement, set their own agenda and colla­bo­rate with exis­ting labo­ra­to­ries such as staats­la­bor and Klimala­bor, too.

What skills are needed? 

Switz­er­land is a coun­try of foun­da­ti­ons and asso­cia­ti­ons. There are around 70,000 foun­da­tion board members and as many as 90,000 asso­cia­tion board members throug­hout the coun­try. There is enorm­ous poten­tial – but only a frac­tion of these stra­te­gic decis­ion-makers are reached at the annual asso­cia­tion symposia. 

While the foun­da­tion lab focu­ses on future skills such as inno­va­tion methods, New Work, active listening, data compe­tency, empa­thy, cultu­ral sensi­ti­vity and the willing­ness to learn new things, Domi­nic Lüthi, foun­der and CEO of, a plat­form for finding suita­ble members for foun­da­ti­ons’ boards of trus­tees, belie­ves it is more important to have an indi­vi­dual and tail­o­red mix of skills. 

The compo­si­tion is crucial, says Lüthi, the initia­tor of the match­ma­king plat­form for board members and foun­da­ti­ons. ‘In terms of diver­sity, we recom­mend having a mix of diffe­rent gene­ra­ti­ons, genders, philo­so­phies and ethnic back­grounds on boards of trus­tees,’ he says. But there also needs to be a coher­ent connec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the foundation’s purpose, as well as a long-term vision, team spirit and exper­tise in areas such as marke­ting and commu­ni­ca­tion, gover­nance and compli­ance, law, digi­ta­li­sa­tion, fund­rai­sing and finance. Hands-on skills are also very important. ‘There should be a good mix of prac­tice and theory on the board of trus­tees, so that projects and chal­lenges can be tack­led effec­tively with feasi­ble and solu­tion-orien­ted measu­res,’ empha­si­ses Lüthi. After being intro­du­ced to the idea of the foun­da­tion lab, he imme­dia­tely agreed to get invol­ved as an expert.

Moti­vat­ing young people

Diver­sity on boards of trus­tees is a recur­ring topic in the foun­da­tion sector – espe­ci­ally with regard to the lack of invol­vement on the part of youn­ger gene­ra­ti­ons. The Board for Good foun­da­tion is aiming to address this issue with its Next­Gen programme. The goal is to inspire young people to get invol­ved in the foun­da­tion sector and provide them with a speci­fic quali­fi­ca­tion for serving on boards of trus­tees. 164 young people have applied for initiative’s scho­lar­ships since the programme was laun­ched in autumn 2021. So far, 47 indi­vi­du­als have bene­fi­ted from a scho­lar­ship in six semi­nars. ‘Demand is consis­t­ently high, reflec­ting the growing need for new trus­tees with diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves,’ says Theresa Gehrin­ger, Presi­dent of the Board for Good foun­da­tion. The foundation’s advi­sory board has ther­e­fore deci­ded to extend the programme for a further three years. Over this period, the initia­tive wants to help even more young people to estab­lish a foot­hold on boards of trus­tees, working with the foun­da­tion sector to iden­tify ways of achie­ving this reju­ve­na­tion. Like the Board for Good foun­da­tion, the foun­da­tion lab also wants to reach a youn­ger and, above all, more diverse audi­ence. It is keen to show how vibrant, diverse and exci­ting the sector is. 

The ques­tion of money 

Brin­ging about change within the sector requi­res more than just ideas – capa­ci­ties and resour­ces are also needed. This is the junc­ture at which Konrad Weber, Theresa Gehrin­ger and Sandro Alva­rez-Hummel find them­sel­ves. They are alre­ady stret­ched thin. ‘After a year and a half, the concept deve­lo­p­ment phase is now complete,’ says Weber. ‘We are ready to go!’ What they need now are resour­ces, namely money. The initial funding should be secu­red by the end of the year. The team are plan­ning to then reduce their current commit­ments to focus on provi­ding high-quality work on a mandate basis during the 1000 days. You need basic profes­sio­nal struc­tures but, above all, money to show­case the project in the early stages. The initia­tors esti­mate that around half a million Swiss francs will be requi­red to run the foun­da­tion lab for 1000 days;  they are hoping to raise these funds in colla­bo­ra­tion with the foun­da­tion sector and other supporters.

No such thing as failure

In today’s foun­da­tion sector, the vast majo­rity of play­ers share best prac­ti­ces and insightful findings with each other. At the same time, there is no such thing as fail­ure, because, as the saying goes, ‘fail­ure is the best teacher’. ‘We inten­tio­nally want to carry out expe­ri­ments that might fail, with the aim of lear­ning from them,’ say Theresa Gehrin­ger and Sandro Alva­rez-Hummel. ‘We’re not just stri­ving for abso­lut­ely bril­li­ant, inno­va­tive and highly successful expe­ri­ments.’ ‘We are young, moti­va­ted and alre­ady working across diffe­rent sectors and disci­pli­nes,’ adds Konrad Weber. The foun­da­tion lab team will kick things off and pass the ball to the nume­rous stake­hol­ders in the foun­da­tion world, involve people, build a commu­nity and leverage the full bene­fits of digi­ta­li­sa­tion. The time is ripe for change.

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