Uncertainty Is Our Constant

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 16th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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At the start of this year, I was invited to speak at a philanthropy conference slated for late spring. I entitled my presentation, “Understanding the Philanthropic Zeitgeist.”

Of course, the original event was cancelled, replaced with a virtual conference last week. As I prepared my presentation, I gathered my thoughts on the elements of our current zeitgeist and those that particularly related to philanthropy, I was not short on relevant subject matter, including community, Zoom (and other virtual platforms), DEI, erosion of trust, and uncertainty. While I talked about all of them and each’s meaning, impact and importance to the nonprofit sector, I was reminded by just how wrong we have been about one — uncertainty. 

We have been bemoaning the uncertainty that COVID has hurled into our worlds as if it were something novelle (pun intended), when it is not. We have just ignored or refused to admit that uncertainty is our constant. As mathematician John Allen Paulos said, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

Crises are our way of life. Just looking at the first 20 years of this century, we have had a major, global crisis almost once a decade, each bringing chaos and necessitating pivoting and finding new ways of doing old things.  

In the first decade, we had 9/11, the first time there had been a non-warfare major terroristic assault on American soil. Towards the end of that decade, we had the Great Recession — not quite a depression, but far worse than any of the recessions those alive had experienced.  While the Great Recession technically ended before the start of the next decade, it certainly didn’t end for nonprofits at that point. We continued to suffer its impact well into the second decade, as our economic uncertainty continued long after that of the other segments of the economy, and long after individuals began to feel more economically safe and secure. Our slower economic recovery is a necessary reality, sadly, as we wait in line for for-profits, government and individuals to experience sufficient recovery to feel secure enough to support nonprofits again.  

And then there was COVID.

To this uncertainty, though, we must add in some second secondary crises, those with names:  Katrina, Sandy and Harvey.  Add to this mix increasingly contentious and, therefore, costly, elections every two, four or six years, and we as a sector have had massive philanthropic uncertainty.  

Uncertainty did not start with COVID — and it  won’t end with COVID. 

Yet, despite this recurring cycle of crisis after crisis, we have not expended resources to help our organizations learn to live with, and deal with, uncertainty.  Rather, as soon as the “cause” of  the uncertainty passes, we revert back to what we did before. As we fail to carry forward the lessons learned in the throes of that most recent crisis, we are left, yet again, insecure in our ability to deal with the next uncertainty.

Uncertainty requires adaptability and change. Living successfully with uncertainty absolutely requires that our organizations — which means our organization’s culture, its staff and volunteer leadership — be facile, innovative and devoid of the “this is how we have always done it” mindset.  Uncertainty is our norm, whether we want to acknowledge that or not; it is not our exception. It ought no longer throw us all into a tizzy.

A few weeks ago, Foundation Source, a for-profit company that supports foundations, came out with research that looked at foundation behavior in the era of COVID.  Granted, the research was based on just 105 foundations, but it reveals  something that is very interesting. The findings were announced as 39% of those foundations surveyed shifted their funding priorities since the start of 2020.  

That’s how you fuel anxiety, especially when folks are feeling the “keen press” of uncertainty.  The other way of looking at the findings, and it could be argued is the responsible way of reporting the findings, is that 61% of these foundations did not shift their priorities, leading to a ”business as usual,” crisis be damned.  

But the truly  interesting part of this study from an uncertainty lens is why those foundations that shifted their funding priorities did so. 85% shifted their funding to support consequences related to COVID; only 32% said they shifted to support social justice issues. The greatest impetus for the change, by more than two-and-a-half times, was due to the novelle crisis—COVID—and not the chronic crisis—social justice.

Why is this important?  The crisis of COVID will end, taking with it the impetus that made many funders shift their giving priorities and give away more money.  And herein lies the uncertainty:  what will happen next?  When the novelle crisis ends (and it will), will funders shift their giving to the chronic one? Will they go back to how things were before COVID? Will another crisis rise up? Who knows? Such is the challenge of uncertainty. But we do know these are scenarios about which we should be thinking and preparing.  

Act Blue, the major democratic online platform for giving, reported last month that it brought in $1.5 billion between July and September — the largest quarter in its 15-year history. This is not a partisan statement, but just the easiest political datapoint to find. Ongoing reports throughout the campaign suggested Republicans were doing equally well. My point, however, is that just like the coronavirus, this “crisis” is almost over and money that went to political campaigns this year will likely go to other causes in the future. Where?  Again, that’s  the uncertainty—and another scenario to consider. 

Blackbaud’s third quarter comparisons just came out. According to the report, giving in the third quarter of 2020 was down just .3% compared to the third quarter of 2019.  Looking at a twelve month period, giving from October 2019 to September 2020 was up 2.2%, compared to October 2018 to September 2019. 

Despite the uncertainty, this is not  a bleak picture. True, people are more worried about 2021 than 2020 (though had you asked folks the question about worry this time last year, most would not have said they were worried), and my response is worry is one thing, reality is another.

What is causing the worry? Uncertainty. Rather than wasting time wringing our hands about uncertainty, something that is as normal and expected as snow in Rochester (the city in the lower 48 with the most snow, on average), we should be assessing our organization’s resilience to uncertainty and making the necessary changes to ensure that we will push through uncertainty.  Because one thing is certainty:  uncertainty will prevail, and so must our organizations.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.