Deciding Well in Tumultuous Times

Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash

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.

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.

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.

Created by Ian David Moss for Democracy Fund, 2019
Example of a prediction tournament question at Metaculus

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?

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.

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.

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Ian David Moss

Ian David Moss

Smarter decisions for a better world