When considering which charity idea would be the best one to create, we accounted for standard factors such as cost-effectiveness and the strength of the evidence that goes into the cost-effectiveness estimate. However, this analysis still left us rather uncertain, with a nagging feeling that we could be somewhere between mildly inaccurate and terribly wrong. What if we picked an intervention that turned out not to be very cost-effective or we picked an intervention that was effective generally speaking but beyond our ability to implement correctly?
The fear that we could be wrong drew us to our favorite metric for evaluating ideas -- flexibility. This is “keep your options open” applied to charity. How easily could we shut down this project and move to another project if this project turned out to not be very good?
The Value of Flexibility
We’ve been wrong a lot over the years, dramatically changing our beliefs, values, and career paths several times as we update on new information. It’s unlikely that the first thing you stumble upon will be the highest impact thing to do, any open minded person would experience a fair degree of change. While we’d like to think things are more stable now, chances are good that we will change our beliefs again as time goes on and that this will require yet another change.
Lastly, even if we don’t change our minds, the world itself is constantly changing. New laws and regulations could make our previous plans untenable. New opportunities could open up that didn’t exist when we first started putting our plan into action. New competitors could arise implementing our intervention just as well or better, rendering our work obsolete.
The more likely it is that change will occur and the more important you think the change will be, the more value you should put on flexibility.
Flexibility Over Robustness
Flexibility is the ability to change if circumstances change. Robustness is the ability to withstand change. For example, if there’s a flood in a village, a flexible population might move to another village. A robust population would have built flood-protecting walls around the village so that it’s not harmed by the flood. If there’s a disaster that prevents farming corn, a flexible population might switch to farming beans, whereas a robust population would have already known to genetically engineer their corn ahead of time to be immune to the disaster.
We definitely see the merit of robustness and would like to be as robust as we can. However, we see robustness as requiring stronger predictive ability about how things may go wrong plus the ability to create effective mitigation strategies, whereas flexibility can be reactive without needing to anticipate. In our examples, the village would have already needed to know to build flood-protecting walls and genetically engineered corn, which may have been hard to know in advance and costly to implement. For instance, maybe they worry about a flood so they build walls, but the disaster that actually strikes is a drought. Since we believe that anticipating and mitigating problems would be nearly impossible given that we face so many unknown unknowns, we think flexibility beats out robustness, at least for us.
Flexibility and The Lean Non-Profit
Flexibility is discussed a lot as a value for start-up for-profit companies. This philosophy, emphasized by Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup, strongly encourages building just the minimum viable product (MVP), testing for user demand before scaling, and pivoting if your initial idea doesn’t work. The start-up world emphasizes that you are frequently wrong about the world (called “product-market fit”) and that you will fail many times before you succeed. Thus, the most successful start-up teams are the ones that are the most flexible.
We think this philosophy should equally apply to start-up non-profits too, though we seek “skills - capacity for impact” fit rather than “product-market fit”. While this idea has not taken off as much in the non-profit world, Luke Muelhauser wrote in 2013 about how the Machine Intelligence Research Institute was operating as a lean non-profit that emphasized MVPs, A-B testing, and pivoting. Since then, there have been two articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review showing one particular experience implementing lean methodology in the non-profit world and another advocating for the benefits of pivoting and the lean methodology. Charity Science has also followed this model since 2013.
The Many Kinds of Flexibility
How can we increase flexibility? We found that flexibility can be increased in a wide variety of different ways. Here are some of them:
A flexible intervention can be adjusted at a moment’s notice and doesn’t require that much upfront cost before seeing results.
A flexible organization is able to quickly act differently based on new evidence.
While we already have flexible senior staff and management that can pivot from one project to another, we’ll also need to hire additional staff and ideally these people could fit into our flexible mindset. The following are a few ideas to increase our chances of coming into contact and hiring such people.
A lot of funding in the charity world is tied to particular ideas. But this is bad for the charity that wants to be able to change quickly, as changes will result in disruption of funds, which disincentivizes flexibility.
We think it is important to be flexible in other areas as well, such as with connections (e.g., people on the board, contacts in public and private sectors, relationships with academics) and with personal situations (e.g., location independence, being independently wealthy).
Overall, improving organizational flexibility by iterating quickly, building a culture that improves pivoting and open-mindedness, by putting a lot of work into hiring and skill training, and by building a broad, diversified funding base looks to be a relatively easy and high-value way of improving an organization’s potential for making an impact.