It’s Time for Hope to Die
I (Katrina) heard a wise thing the other day from a CEO I admire. She killed her staff’s hope for a return to normalcy any time soon. By doing so, she gave them relief, confidence and a path forward.
She said, “I’m giving my staff certainty.” This was Amy Comstock Rick, president and CEO at the Food and Drug Law Institute. She told her staff that all events throughout 2021 would be virtual. No discussion.
Another colleague, Jason Menzo, COO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, made the hard call early in the COVID-19 pandemic (after getting the executive leadership team onboard) to close all brick-and-mortar offices. They stood up remote staff and remote chapters. Done.
These two gave their teams a foundation to work from. They both knew they didn’t have enough information to make the perfect call, but knew they had to make a call. Any call. They knew that in a year or so, they would likely be second-guessed, and heartily. But they also knew if they “failed to provide certainty,” to quote Rick, their staff people couldn’t work effectively.
These leaders demonstrated effective leadership and an intuitive understanding of what their people need. And they rose above their own human nature and took decisive action.
Faced with uncertainty, lack of information or the need to make a quick decision, humans often default to “going with their gut.” Psychologists will tell you “the gut” is what they call “heuristics,” kind of mental shortcuts. They are cognitive biases (not to be confused with prejudices) that nudge people in one direction or another. Often, this is a good thing. Other times, heuristics lead us to do something — or not do something — that hurts us.
There are four big problems that our brains have evolved to deal with. They are:
- Information overload — we aggressively filter; noise becomes signal.
- Lack of meaning — when we’re confused, we fill in the picture; signal becomes a story.
- Need to act fast — we jump to conclusions; stories become decisions.
- What to remember — decisions create our mental models of the world.
Psychologists have demonstrated the existence of nearly 200 of these cognitive biases that help us shape our perceptions and guide our decision-making. For a neat summary, take a look at the “Cognitive Bias Codex” created a few years ago.
We are living in a time of great uncertainty. It is in situations like this that cognitive biases kick in to help bring order to disorder.
COVID-19 is a unique situation. None of us have ever had to deal with anything that so dramatically changed our social lives for an extended period. Perhaps this is how our parents and grandparents felt when the country entered World War II.
On the Codex, several biases are grouped into one heuristic, “To avoid mistakes, we aim to preserve autonomy and group status and avoid irreversible decisions.”
You can’t pinpoint how a particular cognitive bias results in a bad decision any more than you can blame one day’s bad weather on climate change. Still, there is a relationship.
We have seen some nonprofit executives respond to uncertainty with inaction. Many of these organizations are in financial jeopardy as a result. So what to do?
Now, no one sits around and thinks, “What heuristic is impacting my actions right now?” Instead, we make up a narrative that makes our bound-for-disaster action or inaction make sense. What does that look like?
Example: I am the VP of community engagement for a major nonprofit with multiple in-person events: galas, peer-to-peer, golf events. Then, COVID-19 hit.
In March, I thought, “Let’s just see what happens. I will push the few events I have this month into April.”
In April, I thought, “OK, I’ll move the April events to virtual… and the fall events I will leave as is.”
In June, I thought, “I keep moving events around and people are confused, but still… I’m going to move more events to the fall, but I’ll make a decision closer to that time.”
In September, I thought, “All events are virtual. And by spring 2021, it will be all better.”
My resistance to making a hard stop and pivot was tied up with preserving the old way of doing things. I was avoiding making mistakes. My biases made me cling to what I knew instead of viewing the situation without the baggage.
Amy Comstock Rick and Jason Menzo resisted the temptation to avoid making mistakes. They killed their staffs’ hopes for a quick return to normalcy. They responded to uncertainty by creating certainty. Change is hard in the best of times, and it’s rarely a zero-sum game. Whether or not they made the right calls, time will tell. But our money is on them.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.