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In 1996, Lou Temme, minister of Trinity Memorial, a Philadelphia Episcopal church told Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff that a few months after their Future Search, a lightening strike left their building in shambles. As a result of the relationships with the community that had been formed in that meeting, they got massive support from neighbors. They rebuilt their church and created a new model program for social programming and community outreach.

“It raised the hairs on the back of my neck,” said Weisbord, the co-founder of the Future Search Network. “It was a resurrection story.”

Future Search is a unique planning method used to stimulate innovative community action.  The Future Search Network, an international non-profit membership and training organization with 360 members in 40 countries, was founded by Weisbord and Janoff at RHD in 1993.  The Network links nonprofits and public sector groups with trained consultants who will run Future Searches for “whatever people can afford, in any language and on all social issues.” Janoff said.  “We provide training for facilitators who want to grow by learning the processes and helping their communities.” 

Future Search Network operates in all corners of the world on issues such as: ending violence against children in schools in Uganda, helping empower women leaders in communities in Siberia, building peace along livestock routes in Darfur, demobilizing child soldiers during the civil war in Sudan and building an integrated economic development plan in Northern Ireland, a country recovering from three decades of violence.  Future Search was the winner of the 2011 Outstanding Global Work Award, presented by OD Network.  Back in 1993 though, despite their desire to serve the nonprofit world, Weisbord and Janoff had no idea this would happen.

“I had written a book in 1987 called ‘Productive Workplaces,’ Chapter 14 was about ways improve whole systems, with what we were calling Future Search,” Weisbord said. “I went to an OD Network meeting, and so many people said: We want to learn what you talked about in chapter 14. I had heard from a lot of people: I read that chapter of yours, and I got these results. And that kind of scared me, because I didn’t think I was writing a cookbook. I was talking about what I’d experienced. But a lot of people found they could do it.

“We had no assumptions, because we were really in uncharted water, but this was a very powerful strategic planning method which I had evolved during my years in the consulting business. So I knew there was potential here. But I had never tried to do anything like this, deep into the unknown.”

“The Network’s misson of “Service, Learning and Colleagueship”, sprang out of a conversation that we had with local consultants who wanted to learn Future Search,” Janoff said. “We did one training – a big experiment for us – because our little community of consultants wanted to do something to give back to their communities.  We had 16 consultants and they each found 16 nonprofits in the Philadelphia area, such as Women Organized Against Rape, Marion Homes, Philadephia Quaker Meeting, and Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church.

“The deal we made was: if you will donate your services to these nonprofit organizations in order for a chance to practice, we will work pro bono with you to teach you how to do it, and all together we’re going to do this as an action research experiment to see whether a few days of training would enable you to run these conferences in a way that would really benefit the organizations.   Janoff and Weisbord wanted most to see the results in the field. And the stories started pouring in. 

“We heard some fantastic stories in those days,” Weisbord said. “We were flying blind. We didn’t know what we had, nervous about the methodology, whether it would be accepted or not. It was all very experimental. If we could start this network, and get people working this way, and sharing what they learned, we’d have a chance to really test this a lot of different ways. As we learned more and shared our learning, we’d all become more secure in what we were doing.”

Weisbord was, and still is, a member of Resources for Human Development’s board of directors. RHD CEO Bob Fishman, interested in the remarkable successes Future Search was having, asked if Weisbord and Janoff would be interested in running the Network as an RHD program.

“We learned a lot from Resources,” Weisbord said. “One of the things I learned from being on the board in the early years was: How did Resources grow? And it was by never turning anybody away who had energy to do something. So people came with an idea, whether it was Trevor’s Campaign, or Please Touch Museum, or whatever and we said: Sure, what do you need? That was the same thing that happened with us when we started the unit. Bob said: What do you need? And we didn’t even know. Bob said: You need an office and a secretary and some letterhead, so we’ll give you that. RHD has been our partner ever since.”

“We learned that is the way you make change happen, you build on the energy coming toward you, and you give people something to do to support that energy.”

“We feel privileged to get the kind of support Bob and this whole organization, our friends, have given us through the years,” Janoff said.

Future Search grew quickly, rolling up a number of successes around the world, all done by people who’d learned the training and carried it out wherever it was needed.

“At that time we didn’t even have email,” Janoff said. “We sent things out in envelopes, with stamps! I remember the first experience of getting a letter from a woman in Calgary who’d done a Future Search on the issue of AIDS. Not only were we learning from each other, but we were vicariously experiencing people attacking these really complex issues throughout North America and then around the world.

“We train people to do the work, but they go out and do the work. We encourage leaders to apply the work; the more real people get it, the more it spreads.”

Marija Heibel, senior technical associate at Colgate Palmolive, brought a group to a Future Search Network workshop, and then returned a few months later for another workshop because, she said, “Everybody wanted more.”

“At Colgate, we had a lot of different players in the room – everybody from chemists to marketing,” Heibel said. “Future Search has been really beneficial in helping everybody work together.”

Jack Kies, former program manager for Air Traffic Operations at the Federal Aviation Administration, brought in Future Search in 2000 to help with an air traffic system stressed to capacity, and marveled: “We made magic in that meeting.”

Pieter Booysen, principal at Afrikaans High School in South Africa, uses Future Search in training new student leaders each year.

“I have replaced traditional leadership lectures with meetings building on the students’ dreams and plans,” he said. “Weisbord and Janoff’s principles have given me hope that I had lost. Now I have a way that to my mind can effectively change our school for the better.”

Weisbord and Janoff hear testimonials like these and shake their heads.

“We are more and more putting this in the hands of the people – this meeting now works entirely off the experience of the people in the room, rather than the way we put the world together,” Weisbord said. “The content is being created every day.

“We find that when you create opportunities for people to learn together, share their hopes and dreams, and discover how they can work together, adds Janoff , they will go out and do the most amazing things.”