What Do You Know? Are You Certain?

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

There is a powerful visual that forms the basis of the expression “the fabric of society.” When a wrong is committed, the fabric is torn. Sometimes the wrong amounts to a snag, sometimes a hole is created. In both instances the fabric is damaged. And in some cases it becomes entirely unraveled!

The success of a nonprofit organization depends in large part on the public’s faith in the organization and its services. Nonprofit leaders can’t help but respond with dismay when they learn of other nonprofits enmeshed in governance squabbles, charges about the misuse of funds, or disputes alleging the disregard of stakeholder interests and concerns. We might not be the cause of another program’s failure, but the failure of any nonprofit damages the fabric of our sector. The faith in our programs, our institutions and our sector is often squandered by the actions of a few. When this occurs we must work diligently to reestablish our values, reflect on “what went wrong,” and reevaluate where we are. Any thoughtful reflection on these issues should at some point touch on the counterweights of risk and reward.

As you prepare for a New Year and reflect on the year that is quickly coming to a close, take some time to consider the role of uncertainty in your nonprofit and the way in which diverse views can illuminate your past and future. No one person has the right answer every time. By tapping the perspectives of diverse stakeholders we can guide our organizations to the best possible decisions and avoid the risk of missteps caused by self-reliance and certainty.

As leaders we must exercise special care whenever we’re feeling “certain.” In his intriguing book titled On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, author Robert A. Burton, M.D. explains that “certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact.” He encourages the reader to “learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty.” But is uncertainty “unpleasant?” As our colleague Felix Kloman reminds us perhaps uncertainty is “the relish of life itself!” It is, borrowing from Robert Frost, the ultimate opportunity to take the road “less traveled by.” One approach to doing so is by asking “how do we know what we know?” This simple question is at the heart of a thoughtful dialogue about risk taking and risk management. Continue by acknowledging that we are guessing most of the time!

In addition to preparing for a new year in the life of our organizations, many of us are engaged in personal reflection that will lead up to the drafting of a list of personal resolutions. While some experts believe that introspection offers adequate guidance for self-awareness and personal change, a contrary view is expressed by Professor Timothy D. Wilson in his book titled Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Wilson cautions us to combine introspection with observing how others react to us and warns that introspection without also looking outward is both counterproductive and flawed.

The same can be said of nonprofit organizations. Boards and staffs that look only inward for insight on the past and inspiration for the future miss a tremendous opportunity to reflect the perceptions of the larger and arguably more important stakeholder community. If “how we know what we know” is based on our insular reflections of success (e.g., what we keep telling ourselves about ourselves), we are almost certain to be holding fast to a skewed perspective.

Let’s face it we do not know what the future holds for our organizations. Despite years of making costly investments in higher education and continuing education, building resumes touting “increasingly responsible” experience managing nonprofit organizations, and our undisputed passion for the mission of the organization we serve, there is much about the future that is beyond our grasp. As you wrap up the process of forecasting 2010 in your respective organization, consider starting a dialogue about “what we know” and “what we don’t know” in the process. Reflect on “how we know what we know” as you embrace aspirations, adopt budget projections and make difficult choices about continuing or ceasing programs or services in the New Year.

Keep in mind that the accuracy of “what you know” can only be enhanced by listening carefully to individuals with diverse perspectives on your mission, services, opportunities and downside risks. By doing so you will be taking an important step to strengthen the fabric of your organization and your opportunities for long-term success in the view of the “publics” you serve.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. They welcome your feedback on this article and questions about the NRMC’s resources at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org.