Philanthropy in an Uncertain World

Life is complicated. We live in an uncertain world where things that seem to work, actually don’t. Or do, for a while, and then don’t. Or do, but not for the reasons we think they do. Or do, even though we think they don’t.

At any point in time, we operate with a set of “best known data” about the world we live in. But we must humbly recognize that just as what we “knew” 20 years ago wasn’t quite as accurate as what we “know” today, we’ll look back on ourselves today and realize how much misinformation we believed in.

The problem is we don’t know which of our beliefs are wrong. But simply knowing that we’re wrong about a lot of what we “know” can help us make better decisions.

There is only one “right” way to play blackjack. The mathematical probabilities have been calculated and any person of average intelligence can memorize a relatively simple strategy that tells them the only correct decision to make given any set of cards dealt to them.

Most games aren’t like that. Football, baseball, basketball or ANY game involving unpredictable human behavior by your opponents and teammates don’t have a single best way to play. Those games have evolved dramatically over time and strategies that use to work, are now desperately outmoded.

Philanthropy almost always operates in an environment made up of human decision makers. To do philanthropy well, we must realize that much of what we believe today is wrong. When you operate under conditions of uncertainty, you must behave differently than when you operate under conditions of certainty.

In blackjack, you operate under conditions of certainty and so you must always stick to the “proven” method. Even if you lose hand after hand, the only sensible thing is to stick to same strategy.

Under conditions of certainty, we are best served by creating a complete plan prior to implementation and not experimenting or adapting while executing the plan.

But under conditions of uncertainty, we are far better served by adaptive planning where we expect our assumptions to be wrong and build a process to adapt and plan on the fly. Adaptive planning uses strategies like:

  • Planned Options: Given the only certainty is uncertainty, always plan potential options into the original plan.
  • Planned Redundancy: Under certain conditions, redundant resources are waste that should be eliminated. Under uncertainly, redundancy is critical.
  • Event-Driven Continuous Planning: You must plan to continuously change your plan based on new information.
  • Self-Organization in Planning: When disruptive events are frequent, there is not time for top-down centralized planning. Under uncertainty, the best plans push decision making out to individual units or the larger group.

When I write about the need for high performing organizations as a first criteria for philanthropic success rather than a focus on proven high impact programs, it is because I know we live in a world of uncertainty. Under these conditions, we need to embrace adaptive planning in which we push decision making out to the high performing nonprofits we support.

It is only under static, certain conditions that traditional, funder designed, centrally planned interventions could ever be the best path to impact.

We must embrace uncertainty. The only thing we know is that things change.


  1. Jeff Mason says:

    Yes, and we must be prepared to adapt. To be prepared we need to understand how our strategy and related activities have been successful and where they have failed to move us closer to our goal. This is where performance management comes in. Through performance management processes and systems we can then access information that is essential in making effective adjustments to our work as things change.

  2. You have my 100% agreement.

  3. Clarifying question. Early in your post you say we operate on “best known data.” I agree. Later you say,”…much of what we believe today is wrong.” That seems to more than just a restating of the first point. Can you explain the difference?

    I fully understand the idea of starting with as much as you know and then adapting as time moves on and you gain more knowledge. But, to me anyway, that’s still different than saying your original assumptions are “wrong.”

  4. Paul Brest says:

    Absolutely right. The important point, which some people (but not Sean) miss, is that uncertainty necessiates adaptive planning, but is not an excuse for not having a plan.

  5. Thanks Paul. As a funder who believes that adaptive planning is needed, since you know a potential grantee’s plan as presented will end up changing, how do you evaluate if the potential grantee has what it takes to adapt the plan on the fly?

  6. Bruce,
    I’m not sure I understand your question. I would say the two reasons to adapt are 1) external circumstances change or 2) your original assumptions (what you thought you knew) turned out to be incorrect. I think #2 happens a lot.