Deciding Well in Tumultuous Times

Practical advice for donors and institutions responding to COVID-19

Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash

Like many of you, I saw my world change dramatically in what seemed like the blink of an eye back in mid-March. Within a span of a long weekend, my older child’s preschool closed down for the day, then for a month, then indefinitely; the governor of my state ordered all restaurants and other gathering spaces closed with barely six hours’ notice; and confirmed COVID-19 cases in my home county ballooned nearly fivefold as testing capacity belatedly ramped up. By the end of that same week, virtually all non-essential businesses had sent their workers home and large swaths of the United States were under mandatory stay-at-home orders with no end date in sight.

As fast as this all took place, one needs only to check the latest coronavirus statistics to see that, if anything, it didn’t happen fast enough. The prior week, an article by a little-known Silicon Valley data scientist and growth marketer named Tomás Pueyo had gone viral by arguing for the immediate enactment of social distancing measures much like the ones described above. In addition to its bluntness and urgency, Pueyo’s article stood out for its detailed original analysis, including this estimate that delaying social distancing measures by a single day in the exponential growth stage of an uncontrolled pandemic could result in a 40% higher overall caseload:

…an estimate that was backed up by empirical data from the original epicenter of the outbreak, Hubei province in China, showing true cases beginning to plummet as soon as officials instituted a lockdown.

As social sector leaders, we must remember that behind each change of this nature is a policy decision. For every state or municipality that implemented (or didn’t) a stay-at-home order, for every office that shut its doors (or didn’t) before it had to, for every event producer that canceled its programming (or didn’t) out of an “abundance of caution,” there was a person or a group of people who considered and made that choice. For several years now, I’ve been arguing to anyone who will listen that the decisions of social sector leaders sometimes carry enormous consequences. While choosing whether and when to order a lockdown is a particularly dramatic demonstration of that principle, the decisions facing philanthropists, government agencies, and nonprofits in the days and weeks ahead are similarly fraught with both immense import and great uncertainty.

So how should we respond? Several clients and colleagues have reached out to me in recent days to ask for help thinking through that question. The Omidyar Network, a foundation supporting sustainable growth and beneficial technology among other program areas, worked with me to retrofit a previously planned “Learning Hour” for staff to focus on making wise decisions in tumultuous times. And The Philanthropy Workshop, a training and peer learning program for major donors and foundation trustees, hired me on short notice to deliver a presentation on adapting principles of strategic philanthropy to the current crisis. Both organizations have expressed interest in helping a broader audience benefit from the insights we generated.

So I’ve written this article as a guide for all of us in the social sector who are grappling with this moment. Some of us want to do everything we can to stop the spread of the pandemic and minimize the overall harm it will cause. Others of us are more concerned with managing the indirect effects of the crisis on communities or causes we care about. Still others of us are just trying to figure out the role we can and ought to play. All of us, though, can benefit from approaching these challenges with thoughtfulness and rigor.

As we’ll see, the right moves for your situation depend greatly on your goals, values, and unique circumstances. So rather than one-size-fits-all advice, my goal in this piece is to offer a set of tools and thinking guides to help you figure out what the right path looks like for you and your team. And if you need more help, feel free to reach out to me — I’m happy to chat.

With that all said, let’s dive in to some questions that I know many of us are sitting with right now.

Should I shift — or divert resources from — my mission to address COVID-19?

Before we get too far into this, let’s be clear about for whom this is not a complicated question. There are plenty of individual donors out there who are in the fortunate position of having more money earmarked for charitable purposes than they have previously known what to do with. In recent years, donations to donor-advised funds (or DAFs) have grown tremendously, with many donors attracted to the promise of not having to decide immediately how the money is distributed. And there are others, like Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who were planning to ramp up their philanthropy at some point soon but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Donors like these have a lot more flexibility to respond to the current crisis because they don’t have existing obligations to maintain. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do in every case — a donor who had planned to give every last dollar to fight climate change might still want to stick to that plan, for example — but because they have the option to respond directly, they should probably take advantage of it unless they have a good reason not to.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have lots of organizations and government agencies with very clear founding missions that will never change. They certainly may need to adapt their strategies and practices to acknowledge the new realities that COVID-19 is visiting upon us, but the mission is the mission. The Smallville Property Tax Assessor’s Office isn’t going to suddenly turn into some sort of global coronavirus SWAT team.

For the rest of us, the answer is a whole lot less clear. Let’s say you run an arts organization whose season just got canceled, but you’re sitting on an empty facility. Should you try to find a way to repurpose it? Or let’s say you’re a trustee at a family foundation that funds a mishmash of program areas — should you encourage your fellow directors to start or buy into a COVID-19 response fund?

This is a tough one, but in general when considering this question I think it’s helpful to think about balancing scope of impact vs. burden of care. When my family and I found ourselves facing the prospect of self-quarantining for months together with no relief in sight, there was a period of several days during which I intensely questioned how I should be spending my time. Even as I felt a strong sense of urgency to use my skills to help the world, my responsibilities toward my young children made any kind of meaningful engagement seem next to impossible. Part of me felt deeply selfish for prioritizing the wellbeing of my kids, already so privileged compared to most of the world’s children, so highly. But I also realized that the world’s children have many caretakers besides me, whereas my own had no one but me and my wife to depend on. As much as I believed I could be helpful in this moment, I had to be careful not to let a fantasy of playing hero cause me to neglect those who need me most.

This is a story about a family, but I think the same principle applies to donors and organizations. If you have constituents, communities, or causes depending on you, you need to be really careful about abandoning them in a time of crisis. I’m not saying don’t ever do it, but there ought to be a damn good reason. Keeping that principle in mind, then, the two examples I floated above look a bit different. The family foundation is probably best positioned to take care of its current grantees in whatever way makes the most sense — adapting its approach as needed to address new barriers that its beneficiaries are facing, of course, but not fundamentally shifting focus unless the focus needs to be shifted anyway. The arts organization, by contrast, has a facility that is sitting unused. Seeking to activate the space temporarily for public health purposes, e.g. to serve as an overflow space for triaging patients or providing childcare to essential workers, does not have to come at the cost of neglecting the organization’s core mission. So if there is an opportunity to pursue it, why not?

Should I spend more than I usually do?

A related question is how much we should change our spending patterns in response to the crisis, whether that means dipping into endowments or donation budgets, incurring unplanned deficits in the course of responding to immediate needs, or capturing cost savings wherever you can. Again, many individuals and organizations don’t have much of a choice on this one — if the bulk of your revenue has suddenly disappeared and you didn’t have much of a cushion to fall back on, then of course you’ll be cutting back expenditures. But those in a more comfortable position, including a lot of donors and foundations, as well as government entities that are in a position to take on additional debt, need to decide if this is a moment to double down or to hold back.

I don’t think the answer here is at all obvious, and I can think of a number of reasons why you might land on one side or the other. One of the best arguments for spending more today, of course, is that the needs created by both the pandemic itself and the economic and political disruptions associated with it are very real, and it’s not yet clear that society is up to the challenge of fixing things without additional intervention. In times of deep uncertainty and volatility, moreover, it’s wise to deploy spare capital (whether financial, reputational, time, etc.) to hedge against the potential worst-case scenarios.

On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the most likely outcome is that the public health portion of this crisis will be largely over within two years once a vaccine is developed and/or herd immunity is reached among the population. If you’re coming out of that two-year period having contributed marginally to the victory against COVID-19 but with greatly reduced capacity to make a difference in anything else going forward, is that a good trade? The answer, of course, will depend a lot on the proximity between the current crisis and your mission. A funder focused on, say, reducing the threat of nuclear war would be on solid ground in deciding to save its chips for another day. But a social justice advocacy organization might conclude that the threats to vulnerable populations and the policy responses on the table are momentous enough in the present that it’s worth a gamble to get them right.

Either way, you’ll want to ensure that the path you choose here ultimately supports your long-term goals, not just the perceived need of the moment. It may be that longer-term goals can’t be achieved without decisive action now. But that’s a question you’ll want to consider very carefully given that next year we could very well be in a world with similarly daunting needs but greatly depleted resources.

How do I deal with all the uncertainty?

While there seem to be indications that the curve of cases and hospitalizations is starting to flatten overall, there is still so much we don’t know. We don’t know when it will be safe to open up schools, offices, and restaurants again, even in a limited way. We don’t know how long supply chains will hold up in the meantime. We don’t know how long it will take to discover and distribute a vaccine, or if it will happen at all. We don’t know how long people stay immune once they’ve contracted the virus. We don’t know what, if any, long-term impacts from infection may be awaiting those who recovered. We don’t know what the future looks like for the travel industry, large event promoters, or other parts of the economy most affected by the pandemic. We don’t know if case counts and other statistics bear any semblance to reality in many of the most populous countries in the world.

We are truly living in peak uncertainty, and it’s completely understandable to feel overwhelmed and powerless when trying to make decisions in such circumstances. But as hard as it may be to believe, there are ways to make sense of an environment like this. It turns out that I spent much of last year working on a project with Democracy Fund to develop principles for making smart decisions in complex and risky environments. As part of that work, we considered what it means to make decisions — which fundamentally involve predictions about what will happen as a result of your decision — when intervening in complex systems, which are notoriously hard to predict. That inquiry led us to the recognition that not all complex systems are created equal. Some, despite their complexity, will nevertheless respond well to effective interventions because a) we understand the system well enough to know what interventions applied to which levers are most likely to lead to the results we want, and b) the system doesn’t tend to change all that much. When either or both of those conditions is missing, however, finding effective interventions becomes much more difficult, necessitating different kinds of strategies to achieve the desired outcomes (or avoid undesired ones). You can see this thinking summarized in the graph below:

Created by Ian David Moss for Democracy Fund, 2019

So which approach does the present situation call for? I’d argue for taking the Responsive Approach with respect to global events. My reasoning is that despite all the important unknowns I listed at the top of this section, it’s still the case that we’re operating in an information-rich environment when it comes to understanding the coronavirus: scientists are generating research at a breathtaking rate, there is wall-to-wall media coverage of the crisis, and we are rapidly gaining experience with the virus that will serve us well in the future. We even now have prediction tournaments that generate useful data on relevant questions like what the unemployment rate will be next month and when the next NBA game will be played. It’s fair to assume that once there is something relevant to know, it won’t be long before we find out.

Example of a prediction tournament question at Metaculus

In the meantime, we can best deal with the global uncertainty by prioritizing the worst-case scenarios — i.e., what happens if COVID is with us for a long time with no vaccine in sight? What happens if we start to experience widespread shortages of food and other supplies? — and anticipating how those scenarios would affect you and your constituents. Consider what steps you could take now to mitigate the impacts of those worst-case scenarios, either by making them less likely, or less bad if they come to pass. On the other end of the spectrum, we can also think about if there are any amazing opportunities hidden in the crisis — for example, things are looking unexpectedly good right now for environmentalists — and plot how to take advantage of them over the longer term.

Meanwhile, the Ecological Approach is likely to be a better fit with respect to your immediate context. Unlike with the progression of the virus generally, we don’t have as much information about how things are playing out in certain parts of the world or what the indirect effects are on specific cause areas, industries, or segments of the population that may be relevant to your mission. And it’s quite possible that we won’t know some of those effects for a long time. The ecological approach is all about planning for as many scenarios as possible in the face of uncertainty by building into the environment around you flexible capacity to respond to whatever might come. In practice, that means choosing near-term actions that apply to a range of outcomes wherever possible, so that your bases are covered regardless of which underlying model of the current reality turns out to be correct. Think of this as akin to stocking up on supplies at home — you probably don’t know yet what you’re going to want for dinner two weeks from now, but you can try to buy ingredients today that will give you as wide a range of options as possible. It also means listening to your partners and constituents most directly affected by the situation, as it’s likely they will have better ideas than you do about what would help the most.

As you continue to flesh out the details of your plan, you’ll also want to keep in mind how your issue areas, constituents, and local environments are interacting with broader system dynamics. For example, the federal government in the United States just passed the largest bailout in the country’s history, and while there are problems being reported with getting that money out the door, it’s worth asking how those resources will change circumstances for the people and organizations you work with — and which of them might have more difficulty accessing that support.

Finally, with so much unknown, don’t be afraid to try approaches that are a little “weird.” As long as you can make a coherent argument for them and you are staying within the boundaries of the law and basic ethics, it’s a good thing to have a broad range of diverse strategies out there in the ecosystem in case one of them turns out to be wildly successful.

How will I know if I made a difference?

One of the trickiest questions that institutions are asking themselves right now is how to adapt monitoring and evaluation approaches to a situation that seems so inhospitable to them. Are these activities even relevant in a time like this? How do you collect data respectfully and responsibly when everyone understandably feels like they have more important things to worry about? Does suspending or soft-pedaling monitoring and compliance activities mean shirking our commitment to accountability?

Before we get into the details on this, I think it’s important to frame the conversation in the context of what we already know about evidence, which is that even in “normal” times, it’s badly underused. Two separate studies, for example, have shown that nearly three-quarters of foundation professionals have a hard time getting their own colleagues to pay attention to the research they commission. If a lot of research and evaluation could justifiably be described as a waste of time and money a year ago, you want to be especially careful not to fall into that trap now.

The best way to ensure that you’re being responsible about evaluation is to ask what you’ll realistically do with the information once you have it. If your only motivation to conduct or request an evaluation is to be able to reassure yourself that you made a difference, don’t bother. Present circumstances are so complex and fast-changing that it’s going to be next to impossible to isolate the impact that you and/or your organization had. Not to mention that so much is out of your control that you could respond to the situation brilliantly and still not get the results you want, and vice versa.

Now, with that being said, in some circumstances there will be other uses for the information that might be gained through an evaluation. One obvious case is where the strategy relies on new information to be effective. If you’re operating a rapid response to the crisis and unsure about the assumptions that are underlying your program design, then yes, please test them as soon and as robustly as possible to ensure you’re not placing all your eggs in the wrong basket. Even in these situations, however, you should check to make sure there aren’t other options available to meet your information needs — perhaps research that is already being done on similar interventions in other places, for example — before committing scarce resources to monitoring and data collection. After all, the best evidence can do is to reduce your uncertainty about the factors that matter to a decision; investing in more information won’t free you from making educated guesses and judgment calls.

After this is all done, though, if you have to evaluate something, I recommend evaluating your process instead. Did you put in time to brainstorm a range of creative options, more than might have initially felt comfortable? Did you consider how those options might play out under different plausible scenarios? Did you think about what additional information would be relevant to your decision and seek it out to the extent possible? Did you act decisively once it was clear that the cost of waiting for greater certainty wouldn’t be worth the increased confidence? The project I mentioned earlier with Democracy Fund yielded a rubric for evaluating a decision-making process on criteria like these, which you’re welcome to steal for your own purposes.

What can I do to help right now?

Several weeks ago, I decided that the best way for me to contribute in this moment would be to keep track of promising donation opportunities to address the COVID-19 crisis directly. I’ve been doing so on Twitter, and will be updating that list on an ongoing basis.

Here, though, I want to share with you a more complete snapshot of my current thinking on this, which is informed by a fair amount of reading from diverse sources, conversations with a group of donors actively investigating giving opportunities, and application of the insights mentioned earlier in this piece. With that said, there are plenty of big question marks in the below and I would not be surprised if my opinions changed substantially in the coming weeks as new information comes to light. If that happens, I’ll be sure to update the piece accordingly.

Premise #1: Speed is of the essence. Just four months ago, no one had heard of COVID-19; in that time, it has killed more than 100,000 people, destroyed trillions of dollars in economic value, and reshaped the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Four months is how long some grantmakers take to get a check out the door. To respond effectively, we need new ways of working that eliminate bottlenecks that slow us down. One of the most serious such bottlenecks is the process for obtaining funding for critical research related to the disease and our response. Fortunately, a group of tech entrepreneurs and venture capital funders including Patrick Collison, Paul Graham, and others have launched Fast Grants, a bold initiative to turn around funding decisions on COVID-19-related research projects within 48 hours. As of April 12, Fast Grants is accepting additional donations of $10,000 or more and has received far more high-quality applications than available funds can currently support, so this seems like a highly worthwhile donation target.

Premise #2: COVID-19 is rapidly turning into a poor person’s disease. It didn’t start out that way, as some of the first cases in the Western world included business executives, celebrities, and politicians. But as suppression measures have gone into effect, the wealthy have found themselves with much more wherewithal than others to escape the cascading wave of cases around the world. With few exceptions, nearly any vulnerable population you can think of — immigrants, service workers, the homeless, the disabled, nursing home residents, incarcerated people — is especially vulnerable to getting sick and dying from this disease. And as bad as it is proving to be for poor people in the United States and other rich countries, I fear it will be exponentially worse for the vastly greater numbers of poor people in the developing world. Many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) lack infrastructure to accommodate a surge in hospitalizations, and face a steep uphill battle when competing with rich countries for access to scarce resources like personal protective equipment. Even basic necessities like soap and clean running water are hardly a given across much of the world. Moreover, for populations packed into dense slums who struggle to survive every day, adopting social distancing may simply mean risking death by starvation instead of infection.

The group of interested donors that I mentioned earlier is still investigating the best ways to help here, but two prospects currently stand out. First, the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund is seeking to raise $1 billion by the end of April to fully implement a pre-existing pandemic preparedness plan that prioritizes building up public health infrastructure in the world’s poorest countries. Despite having the backing of governments and corporations around the world, a large funding gap remains. Second, GiveDirectly, which has a strong track record of deploying unconditional cash transfers to people in the developing world, has launched a COVID-specific emergency relief program targeting food stamp recipients in the United States, with plans for international expansion to be finalized soon. Giving people cash has been shown to be a highly cost-effective intervention, and with severe economic disruptions already taking place and likely to worsen in the coming months, this is a way to spread the wealth.

In addition to the two organizations listed above, many of the major international aid organizations, including Partners in Health, Doctors Without Borders, and CARE, have set up COVID-19-specific funds. I have not vetted these in depth but I encourage you to investigate them for yourself if interested.

Premise #3: The clearest way out of this crisis is a vaccine that works. We’ve been hearing for months that vaccines are the answer. Incredibly, though, even with trillions of dollars flying around in response to the crisis, there is still such an urgent funding gap that the United Kingdom’s largest private foundation, the Wellcome Trust, has launched a fundraising campaign to help fill it. Among the priorities identified is $2 billion to fund the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Interventions (CEPI), which helps vaccine trials get off the ground faster (one has already proceeded to phase 1 trial) and ensure equitable distribution once an effective vaccine has been identified. Despite the daunting $2 billion figure, CEPI has already raised more than a third of the necessary funds and needs less than $200 million to meet its needs through June according to my calculations. If you don’t have that kind of money to play with, another way to help is to advocate that your government support CEPI. In the United States, CEPI is being considered for inclusion in the next stimulus package; you can facilitate this by calling your local representative and/or Speaker Pelosi to request that $1 billion be allocated to CEPI “for US global leadership on vaccines.”

Final thoughts

All of us are feeling our way through this new reality. In the coming weeks and months we may learn new things that have dramatic implications for some of the advice above. But the best that anyone can expect is that we make the wisest choices we can with the information we have available to us at the time, and that’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’d love to know if you find any of this useful and how you are putting it into practice.

In the meantime, stay safe and take care of yourself to the extent you can, and don’t forget that we’re all in this together.

Smarter decisions for a better world