How Nonprofit Leaders Can Prepare for Election Results
Are you prepared as a nonprofit leader for the possibility of a disastrous result for the U.S. Presidential election?
Such an outcome might seem impossible. Yet it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to many top political leaders and experts observing the run up to the election. With many more mail-in ballots, which are much more vulnerable to legal challenges, the counting might drag on for many weeks. It may well be accompanied by widespread civil disturbances, serious economic turmoil and potentially a constitutional crisis.
Is a voice deep inside your gut whispering that you shouldn’t worry about it — an election disaster never happened before, and so it won’t happen now? Maybe it’s the same voice you heard when reading articles at the beginning of this year about the need to prepare for COVID-19 turning into a pandemic?
As a result of such voices in the guts of leaders, the large majority of organizations failed to prepare for the disaster of COVID-19. Our brains have a disastrous tendency to underestimate greatly low-probability and high-impact disruptors, what you might have heard called “black swans.”
This disastrous tendency comes from dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. These mental blindspots impact all areas of our life, from health to politics and even shopping.
Cognitive Biases and Election Risk
Three cognitive biases bear the biggest fault for our failure to face the truth about the possibility of an election disaster.
The normalcy bias refers to our brains assuming things will keep going as they have been — normally — and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood and impact of a serious disruption, such as a constitutional crisis.
Another major problem, the confirmation bias, describes our strong preference to look only for information that already supports our pre-existing beliefs and gut feelings, and ignore data that doesn’t. That includes the possibility of a major election disaster.
When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blindspot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing sufficiently for contingencies and problems. The planning fallacy applies especially black swan-type low-probability, high-impact events such as a U.S. election catastrophe.
To address these cognitive biases, you need to use probabilistic thinking. First, assign a probability to various election disaster scenarios.
What’s the probability that the mail-in ballots will take a long time to be processed due to legal challenges and civil strife, say stretching at least until the Electoral College vote on December 14? Given the serious, costly and truly unprecedented preparations for the post-election counting battle by political leaders, I’d say no less than 30% (but you can assign your own number).
After that, what’s the likelihood that the Electoral College vote will not be decisive due to legal challenges? Perhaps only half of that, so we’re at 15%.
At that point, the House of Representatives gets to decide the President. Yet, both parties have ways of stalemating the process, resulting in a full-blown constitutional crisis with no clear legal resolution. I’d put the likelihood of that at two-thirds of 15%, so 10%.
Mitigating Election Disaster Risk
Next, consider what the future would look like if the civil strife and legal challenges lasted only through the Electoral College vote. What kind of problems might come up for you as a leader?
Reevaluate your team and your organization’s business continuity plan. Recall that voice in your gut encouraging you to ignore the possibility of the pandemic: The normalcy bias, the confirmation bias and the planning fallacy led to the vast majority of nonprofits to not prepare nearly well enough for COVID-19, and you don’t want to fall into the same trap again. While you might hope that the potential of an election disaster will not disrupt your work, if your staff aren’t working all virtually now, be ready to transition as many as humanly possible to working from home. If you’re in direct human services or other areas that need some people on site, make sure to hire additional security to protect your location, your staff, your volunteers and the clients you serve from civil disorders.
Talk to your staff and volunteers about the potential of an Electionpocalypse, and support them in taking steps, such as those outlined in this piece, to protect their work and well-being. For the latter, highlight whatever mental health resources you provide, for instance an Employee Assistance Program. Get your systems and processes ready for many employees and volunteers being unable to work at all or in part. Ensure there’s thorough cross-training, particularly for the most significant roles, in case of such disruptions.
How many resources would you require to address problems? Add them up, and multiply them by 30%. Then, go on to use those resources to prepare for this possibility.
Next, consider what problems you might face, and what resources you might need, if the Electoral College vote is indecisive, and this situation goes into early January. Multiply these resources by 15%. Finally, evaluate the problems and resources needed if the House voting ends in an impasse and a constitutional crisis, and multiply these by 10%.
Using this approach, you distribute your problem-solving, opportunity-taking and resources across the different possibilities in accordance with your chosen evaluations. By doing so, you’re essentially buying insurance to protect yourself from election disaster.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.