Missing Information

[This article was co-published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on June 15, 2020.]

Our access to information is instantaneous.

While having breakfast at 8:00 we know that thunderstorms will be rolling in at 4:00 that afternoon. It’s easy enough, while we’re at it, to find the weather forecast for Tokyo, Tijuana, and Tacoma. We can instantly check the meaning and pronunciation of any word at any time, and we can Google-translate that word into a dozen other languages. We know the real-time price of every stock, how much a dehumidifier costs at Walmart, and the salsa options for the bean burrito at our favorite taco place. We can stream nearly any movie or event on our phone.

Since the start of the pandemic, we still have access to all that information. So why do we have the sense that we don’t know what’s happening?

Yes, we still know the small stuff — the stock prices, the weather, the burrito ingredients — but we don’t know what matters: whether schools will reopen in September; when it will be safe to go to the office or the theater or the gym; or how much of a risk we run by sitting with friends having coffee. Even when the governor or superintendent of schools or theater director or café manager reassuringly tells us what’s safe, we can’t help but question the underlying assumptions that led them to their decisions, and in any event, we know that everything’s subject to change.

Welcome to the world of missing information. And in fact, it’s more than information that we’re missing: We lack knowledge, a deficit that’s being felt keenly in the nonprofit world.

In writing this, I am borrowing both the theme and title from Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information, written in 1992. McKibben, best known for his reporting and advocacy on climate-change issues, wrote The Age of Missing Information before the internet became common currency and fully 15 years before the ubiquity of smart phones gave most of us bottomless, instant information right in our pockets. But the information overload was already gushing in 1992, though at the time the primary medium was cable television.

McKibben wanted to explore what this access to information meant, and so he committed to the unenviable task of watching videotape of every minute of a particular day’s television fare, drawn from all 97 channels of the cable package in Fairfax County, Virginia (at the time the nation’s largest cable network). He then contrasted that experience with what he learned by being outside in the woods for that same 24-hour period.

As you can imagine, in his television immersion, McKibben watched a lot of Gilligan’s Island reruns, countless televangelist sermons, dozens of home-shopping shows and TV newscasts, and, yes, plenty of the Weather Channel. He evaluated the information, much of it faulty, some of it sensationalist, and nearly all of it inconsequential or boring or both. McKibben concluded that, while we are constantly bombarded by information, we have lost a connection to the natural world, along with some precious coping skills.

For example, by 1992, much like today, we dialed up the weather forecast and accordingly packed or didn’t pack an umbrella and raincoat. But McKibben noted that our great-grandparents likely would simply have walked outside, sniffed the air, looked at the horizon, and more or less known what the afternoon’s weather would bring. Our ancestors had skills that we don’t even know we have lost. “We . . . live at a moment of deep ignorance,” wrote McKibben, “when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.”

Which brings us to the strange world of Covid-land, the spring of 2020, and the waves of challenges nonprofit organizations are trying to wrestle to the ground. Nonprofit leaders are seeking certainty and reassurance so they can make sound planning decisions. But certainty and reassurance are hard to find.

Nonprofits are used to having a baseline for their planning. If donations in 2018 totaled x, then they could hope, perhaps, to raise x+5 percent in 2019. Nonprofits have used the same process for predicting theater tickets sold, students enrolled, knee surgeries performed, music lessons given, and children fed — that is to say, for projecting virtually all their programming and business planning.

How do nonprofits budget their 2020 and 2021 charitable contributions when suddenly 40 million people have gone on the unemployment rolls? How do they sell tickets to plays that may not be safe to stage — or enroll students in schools that may not open or that may be taught in person or remotely or both? And even if the nonprofit absolutely knows that it can safely perform the play or open the school, how can it evaluate the ability and appetite of the public, so devastated by the economic disaster, to buy tickets or pay tuition?

More fundamentally, how do nonprofits make plans when they have little reliable information on the course of the pandemic?

Here are five suggestions.

Nonprofit leaders need to grow more comfortable with not knowing. Being overly certain in an uncertain time makes for bad planning, and it erodes credibility with the public. Organizations should remain in touch with their supporters and partners — but they need to emphasize the process they’re undertaking and their guiding values without committing prematurely to a particular course of action. Nonprofit leaders need to keep reminding themselves that this is an unprecedented time. (It certainly is that. As more than one person has joked, “I’m looking forward to returning to a time . . . that’s precedented.”)

Nonprofits need to create various scenarios — worst case, most likely case, best case, and gradations in between — for how the pandemic will develop and how their organizations will react. In so doing, they need to create trigger dates with benchmarks so they can be ready to adjust from one path to another, as appropriate.

Even in creating a best-case scenario, nonprofits need to be realistic: “Best” is almost certainly not going to be “normal.” The pandemic is not likely to pass quietly, and contagion levels may well spike again . . . and again. But even if Covid-19 were to miraculously disappear, the psychological and economic debris will remain, and the financial consequences may well worsen in the coming months, as the early governmental support programs expire and as the effects of the calamity ripple out.

Nonprofits need to recognize that people will no longer crowd into enclosed theaters for performances or galas: Potential audience members are frightened, and in any case, many people will lack the discretionary income to buy tickets. Nonprofits need to look dispassionately at each of its traditional activities and jettison those that no longer make sense. It’s not so much that we have to start all over at Square 1. It’s more that we all have to move to “Square A” — for “After.” The world is different now than pre-pandemic, and the situation will continue to be different in six months, a year, or perhaps even five years from now. We all need to rebuild for the new reality.

Nonprofit leaders need to be nimble. What seemed likely on June 1 may be unrealistic by July 1, and unthinkable by Labor Day. For that matter, what seems dubious now might be safe and logical in December. Each nonprofit needs to make a plan with many contingencies and be prepared to shift as needed.

Nonprofits need to focus on their mission. This seems obvious, but it’s critical at this moment for nonprofit leaders to ask themselves: What is the purpose of our organization, and how can we fulfill that mission most effectively given pandemic-related restrictions and limited resources? That might mean eliminating many programs and activities, or even ceasing operations as an independent entity and merging with a stronger or complementary organization. The goal, nonprofit leaders need to remind themselves, is not necessarily the survival of their individual organizations, but ensuring ongoing services and support for their constituents.

Essentially, nonprofit leaders — and all of us — should endeavor to act wisely, which is a real trick, given the pervasive atmosphere of stress and fear, the unreliability of information, the constantly changing conditions, and our habitual short-term analysis. To build on Bill McKibben’s observation, we need to reverse-engineer how we view the world and re-create our great-grandparents’ ability to sniff and squint at the horizon to anticipate the day’s weather. In this case, instead of assessing the weather, we’ll be thinking about Covid-19, crisis management, and the economy, and instead of looking a few hours out, we’ll be projecting into the next few months and years.

We need to break the habit of drinking in minute-by-minute informational updates and instead work to understand the big picture. We need, as best we can, to be farsighted, measured, humble, pragmatic, transparent, inclusive, respectful, thoughtful, and, at the right moments, decisive.

None of this will be easy, and there are no perfect solutions in a time of fear and disruption. The nonprofit world and our larger society are in an existential crisis, and it’s difficult to balance the emotional with the analytical. A great many organizations will fail. Even the best decisions will leave us longing for what we have lost. Without a doubt, there’s rough weather ahead. That much, we know.

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