How often should you re-evaluate whether your charity is worth continuing?
Although it is crucial to do your best to disconfirm your charity’s impact and most people do not do this nearly enough, there is also such a thing as doing it too frequently. There will inevitably be fluctuation in the results of the evaluations, so day-to-day you may have ‘down days’ (or down months), even if the project is worthwhile overall. You might become demotivated if every day bad news comes in, you think you have to start again. Instead, we recommend setting specific re-evaluation points ahead of time e.g. every 6 months or yearly before you make the next year’s plan. That way on a day-to-day basis you can devote your energy and resources to making the plan work, feeling confident in its success, while knowing that you will critically assess your impact periodically and not end up wasting your whole career on a dead end.
The importance of being flexible
“Be firm on principle but flexible on method.”
- Zig Ziglar
Here at Charity Science, we have been wrong many times over the years. We’ve had to dramatically and swiftly change our assumptions, beliefs, and strategies as we came across new information. In other words, we’ve had to be flexible. A flexible organization can recognise when it needs to change tack and do so quickly.
There are two broad types of situation in which flexibility is important:
To prepare for such eventualities, keep your eyes open for indications that you might be wrong or that the world has changed. In particular, be aware how unlikely it is that the first thing you stumble upon will be the highest impact thing to do. Your calculations could be wrong, or you may have overlooked a big logistical hurdle. Try to think ahead and objectively predict how likely it is that your situation will change. The more likely it is that change will occur (and the more drastic you think the change will be), the more you should value flexibility.
Why flexibility is more important than robustness
Flexibility is the ability to change if circumstances change. Robustness is the ability to withstand multiple different changes. For example, if there’s a flood in a village, a flexible population might move to another village, whereas a robust population might have already built flood-protection walls around the village.
Robustness is a very valuable quality, and we would like to be as robust as we can. However, in order to be robust, an organization must be able to predict and mitigate potential change, both tasks that are often borderline impossible. A flexible organization, however, can react swiftly to change without needing to anticipate it. In our example above, the robust village would need to know in advance when the flood would happen. Then, the local government would have to raise the funds, find the materials, employ the workers, and complete the construction, all before the flood took place! And what if the flood never came but rather something out of left field, like a stock market crash, against which a wall is powerless. Since anticipating and mitigating all problems is nearly impossible given that the world has so many unknowns, we think flexibility generally beats robustness.
Flexibility and the lean non-profit
In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries strongly encourages for-profit start-ups to start out by building only a minimum viable product (MVP), test it for user demand before scaling, and pivot if the initial idea doesn’t work. He gives this advice because companies are frequently wrong about what the market actually wants and usually fail many times before succeeding. Thus the most successful startup teams are the ones that are the most flexible, who can adapt when their plan fails.
This same philosophy applies to non-profit start-ups too. As a charity entrepreneur, you will need to start small, and only scale-up your intervention if it is successful.
How to choose a flexible intervention
A flexible intervention can easily be adjusted and doesn’t require much upfront cost before seeing results. Below, we’ve laid out our suggestions for maximizing flexibility and ranked them according to difficulty and importance, based on our own experience and intuitions.
2 For example, the conditional cash transfer model is easily applicable to a wide variety of health services. If the first health service you incentivize doesn’t work for some reason, you could use the use same cash transfer framework for a different health service.