In his recent post, Aaron Sklar gave an excellent set of recommendations that focused on ways to decrease uncertainty by measuring proxies for the inevitably messy business of creating social impact. But in addition to finding ways to evaluate under conditions of uncertainty, I think it is critical that we get comfortable with the discomfort that uncertainty causes.
The question under consideration assumes that we should seek comfort in the way we tackle problems of social impact. But I wonder, at the risk of sounding too Zen, if instead we need to accept the idea that the business of creating social impact is one that explicitly makes people uncomfortable.
It isn't fun to feel uncomfortable, but it isn't terrible. In fact, in many cases, philanthropists are attempting to fund programs serving people who are far more uncomfortable than then donor will ever be. The "discomfort" stemming from a lack of access to water or an unplanned teenage pregnancy simply dwarfs the "discomfort" that a donor might feel from grant-making under conditions of uncertainty.
Great investors in the for-profit space have come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty. Baron Rothschild, a member of the great banking family, is known to have said, "Buy when there's blood in the streets." And Warren Buffett warns that "You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus." In other words, if everyone agrees with your investment decision, then it is probably not a good one.
Blood in the streets? Investing when no one agrees with you? Talk about discomfort and uncertainty. In fact, I believe that the discomfort caused by uncertainty is a requirement of great philanthropy. Great outcomes are achieved when an appropriate level of risk is undertaken; risk is caused by uncertainty, and uncertainty causes discomfort. We should not just advocate for philanthropy to become comfortable with uncertainty, but to acknowledge that great grant-making requires funders to accept discomfort.
Humans don't like to take risks. We are evolutionarily designed to be risk adverse. But good philanthropy, just like good investing, requires taking risks. Maybe a Zen approach to evaluation isn't just a new age joke. Maybe accepting discomfort rather than trying to overcome it is the key to navigating uncertainty.
How can philanthropists learn when discomfort stems from appropriate risk taking and when it signals an intuitive response to which the donor should listen?
Behavioral finance and psychology have offered investors many lessons on avoiding the traps that encourage them to succumb to discomfort. What lessons might philanthropy learn from these disciplines?