Nonprofits Are Facing Tough Decisions
Right now, nonprofit leaders are faced with a lot of tough decisions. “How should I speak to my supporters?” “Should I cancel my events or postpone them?” Even, “Is it appropriate to ask people for donations during the crisis?”
In the past weeks, Turnkey’s clients have voiced these and other questions. We’ve seen one thing over and over: Organizations that made quick decisions and took swift action are now way ahead.
Psychologists have studied the decision-making process extensively. You’ve probably heard the expression, "When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice." The eminent psychologist/philosopher William James said this more than 100 years ago. Since then, research has proven that he was spot-on. In fact, there is a whole field of study devoted to the psychology of indecision.
The Roots of Indecision
So what makes people indecisive? Research tells us that indecision is all about avoiding one of these things:
1) the choice between two negative alternatives (one of which has to be adopted)
2) the choice between two fairly equal courses of action
There’s a lot at stake right now for nonprofits. The inability to choose may be tied directly to the fear of making a mistake.
We’ve talked to clients who seem to be frozen in place. The coronavirus crisis is a fast-moving situation. Information seems to change every week. And perhaps worst of all, there is conflicting information out there, making it difficult to make informed choices.
That’s why this is a time when it’s important to rely less on data and more on your gut. Sure, keep an eye on retention rates, revenue and all the other indicators of the health of your organization and how well your supporters are responding; but avoid what some in the business world call “paralysis by analysis.” Instead, take action, look at the results, make adjustments and move on.
One of the first lessons I learned in an executive management course at IBM was “if you don’t make the right decision, you can make the decision right.”
It’s About Your Gut
If you’re a decision-maker in a time of crisis, there is a natural tendency to gather the staff and “hash it out.” We’ve been on a lot of Zoom calls where everyone throws in their two cents about whether to cancel or postpone events, for example. Listening to everything staff has to say is great; coming to a decision by consensus is not.
Your staff is just as bewildered by the shifting sands beneath their feet as you. In the end, you’re the decision-maker because the outcome is your responsibility. Someone — the board, your CEO, whomever — has entrusted you to decide what is right for the organization.
Don’t let the fact that whatever you choose may lead to a negative outcome keep you from taking action. Because for some situations, there may be no positive outcome. Only avoiding the worst from happening. There is no perfectly right decision, just like there is no perfectly wrong decision. This is not a zero-sum game.
In uncertain times, it may be necessary to lead more directly in order to reduce your own, and others’, stress. In Michael Crichton’s autobiography, “Travels,” he writes about his troubles while directing the film “The Great Train Robbery.” There were weeks of frustration with delays caused by his attempts at collaboration with the crew. Finally, the film’s star, Sean Connery, sat him down for a talk.
Connery said, “You know, you don’t do any favors beating about the bush, making us try and deduce what you mean. You think you’re being polite, but you’re actually just difficult. Say what you mean and get on with it.”
Right now, it’s fine to tell staff that you’re going to do XYZ because that’s what your gut is telling you to do. You may feel like you’re outside of your comfort zone, but so does everyone else. No one has ever been through something like this. Get moving, then fix it as you go. Having a plan and being able to work hard at it will bring your stress level down, and your staff’s, too.
Finally, remember that your supporters need you right now. They need to know you’re still working, wisely using the investment they’ve made in your mission with their donations. They need to know they have power through their support of your organization’s work. They need to know they are connected to a larger community, through you.
We end our book, “Dollar Dash, The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” with a quote from the Canadian cleric and philosopher Basil King. He wrote, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
Go forth and conquer.
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 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 also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” 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.