If you feel like you don’t have a clue how to run a successful non-profit and are just winging it, you probably know that you are in good company.
If you are wishing there was a book someone could give you for Christmas that explained the process to you, according to a recent piece on The Conversation, such a book doesn’t exist because no one really knows the answer.
The reason why it doesn’t exist is due to the way the successes of non-profits are studied. The author of the piece, Fredrik O. Andersson, basically blames human nature and biases for this.
When people want to know what works, they tend to focus on the successes which means they learn very little about what contributes to failures. This is known as selection bias, the most famous example being Abraham Wald’s counter intuitive suggestion to armor the parts of WWII bombers without bullet holes since presumably that is where the planes that did not return got hit.
Or as Andersson writes:
Imagine that researchers want to investigate and isolate the factors that make gamblers successful. If they study only the gamblers who win all the time, they would reach the obviously false conclusion that gambling is always profitable
Carter Gillies who frequently comments on the blog has often brought up selection bias as a problem in the mindset and approach to non-profit problems. Now here I am writing about it, validating the point he has long held. I hate it when he is right so often and identified these issues so far in advance.
Except, Carter would point out this is an example of selection bias and one of the other problems Andersson identifies- flawed memory. I am only focusing on those times Carter was right and only remembering those times because I have later come across someone else reinforcing his view.
Andersson notes that any research performed directly on non-profits only provides a snapshot view of what is making them successful (or not) at this moment of time and doesn’t really provide insight into the process leading to that success. The researchers are left to ask the non-profit board and staff to relate what factors lead to their current state. The problem is, their memories of how things evolved is often very flawed.
This is a huge issue because everyone from founders to donors and other funders are likely to look at successful examples and determine that is the path to success that should be followed either by themselves or those they fund.
Andersson writes about working with non-profit entrepreneurs where he asked them a series of questions and then followed up 6-14 months later and asked them to recall their answers. (my emphasis)
I asked participants in the workshop about three things: why they wanted to start a new nonprofit, where they anticipated getting funding and how likely they believed it would be that they might actually launch a new organization.
Three out of 10 recalled having a different reason for wanting to start a new nonprofit than they asserted in the first survey. And both of those reasons, of course, could not be accurate.
Nearly half incorrectly recalled the source of funding they had anticipated. The expected chances of a successful launch also differed. The people who did launch a new nonprofit were somewhat more likely to say they had anticipated this success during their second interview. The people who failed to get a new nonprofit up and running were nearly 20 percent less likely to say they expected to succeed during their later interview.
Since stories are malleable, the best way to reduce the risk of hindsight bias is to observe startups from the very beginning and follow them over time.
Some people forget, others get the details mixed up and others ascribe a rationale they didn’t have in mind at the time when they’re asked about events that have already transpired.
While his sample size is admittedly small, I suspect that this general trend would be observable with larger numbers. I have written about this general issue before with artists mis-remembering the amount of work that went into their first success and attributing a big break to luck rather than effort.