Monday, February 07, 2011

Synecdoches, predictions, and being wrong

I'm taking a writing class and a swimming class. The writing class is taught by a well-known non-fiction writer. All ten of my classmates are published authors; several are accomplished journalists. I've been writing for a long time, but have not taken a writing class since Mr. Frost taught me to diagram sentences in fourth grade.

I've been swimming since I was 3 though I'm not sure I ever had lessons. Dad held me up in the water until he was sure I wasn't going to drown and then sibling rivalry took over. I know how to swim and have been doing so for decades but I don't know anything about form or efficiency.

Both classes got me thinking about how do I know what I know.

Over the weekend I learned the word synecdoche from a bookseller's tweet. I had to look it up. Here's what it means:

n : substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one
or vice versa

This got me thinking about the many small trends, ideas, changes, in philanthropy and society that have caught my eye recently. As I take notes and clip websites I'm always asking myself "does this mean anything larger than itself?" Is it a sign of something, the harbinger of a trend? Is one thing a signal or a stand in for bigger trends, or is one small thing just one small thing? How do you know a synecdoche from a one-off?

Here are some of the things I've been noting:
  • Aging population. I've been following research and demographic trends on aging for some time. An article in Saturday''s NY Times included this paragraph: “No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy making,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s wrote in a recent report, “as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.” Standard & Poor's Global Aging 2010 Report
  • Racial demographics of USA: "U.S. racial minorities accounted for ~ 85 percent of the nation's population growth over the last decade..,Preliminary census estimates also suggest the number of multiracial Americans jumped roughly 20 percent since 2000, to over 5 million."
  • Foundation Center seeks leader for GrantCraft - in partnership with European Foundation Center. Interesting trans-Atlantic partnership. And another important acquisition (see GrantsFire) by The Foundation Center.
  • Google's Art Project. This is like Street View for museums. What does the ability to view art from your mobile phone mean for institutions, imagery, art, us? Will this raise the same issues as eBooks, citizen journalism, and music downloads?
  • Will 33Needs - a Kickstarter for social enterprise - work?

How do I know if any of these things matter for philanthropy? Part of how I know is by asking experts, asking you, doubting the possibilities, and looking for counter-factuals. I bring an historian's toolbox for making sense of clues and a great respect for nonlinear and unexpected turns of events. I try to understand others' methodologies and approaches, from journalists to data scientists. I try to learn new skills and get better at things I think I know how to do. Sometimes I'm right, often I'm wrong. One of the nicest comments I've received about the Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2011 report is praise and appreciation for the section it includes called "Renovations: What I Got Wrong."

Join me on Wednesday for a free webinar, hosted by Guidestar, to discuss some predictions I've made for the next decade in philanthropy. Think of it as "crowdthinking" about the future. Registration and sign up information is here. Hashtag for the event is #tenforten.


Sharon Nathani said...

Lucy, you should see the film Synechdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman to get a sense of the chaos which can come about from : n : substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one
or vice versa

Lucy Bernholz said...

Yes - as I was looking up Synecdoche I kept reading about the movie. I've put it on my list - thanks!