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Philanthropic Decisions

One of the missions of the EID social media site is to share a wider range of ideas than we can cover in the journal. My approach is to find ideas from related areas of science, social science, and the humanities and apply them to human factors and ergonomics theory and practice.

Today I am going completely around the circle. I found a report that applies human factors to philanthropic management. So I am going to apply HF to philanthropic management and back to HF. Or something like that.

many of our decisions rely on mental shortcuts or “cognitive traps,”
which can lead us to make uninformed or even bad decisions.2
Shortcuts provide time-pressured
staff with simple ways of making decisions and managing complex strategies that play
out an uncertain world. These shortcuts affect how we access information, what information
we pay attention to, what we learn, and whether and how we apply what we learn. Like all
organizations, foundations and the people who work in them are subject to these same traps.

The report is about cognitive traps (i.e. heuristics), such as confirmation, escalation of commitment, availability, and groupthink, to the management of philanthropic organizations. It uses some of the more well-known sources such as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. We have talked about these ideas many times on this.

My Take

It is often hard to apply the principles of one discipline to another, but the authors of this report do a great job. They start out acknowledging that the managers of philanthropic organizations are among the most susceptible to these cognitive traps:

  • People who go into philanthropy tend to stay there for their entire careers, giving them the curse of expertise.
  • They are often highly emotionally invested in the issues involved.
  • The situations they deal with are visceral, emotional, and visually vivid.
  • They start out with deeply entrenched beliefs about how things work.
  • They spend most of their time interacting with people who think just like they do.
  • There are many outside forces to which they can attribute any failures or disappointments.
  • They are often reviewing the results of their own work.
  • When change does happen, it happens very slowly.
  • They operate under extreme resource constraints in time and money.

Wow. It makes you wonder how they can make effective decisions at all.

The solutions that the authors recommend are the ones that we are familiar with: Assign a devil’s advocate for all important deliberations.

  • Find an outsider’s perspective whenever possible.
  • Intentionally and systematically look for alternative explanations.
  • Create a culture that encourages finding faults, loopholes and failures.
  • Encourage frequent status checks and course corrections

    Your Turn

    Many of the details that they expand on for each of these are quite insightful, especially considering these are not HF professionals. I recommend reading the whole report if you can. It is 30 minutes you won’t regret. After all, didn’t we just agree that getting an outsider’s perspective is useful?

    Do you have any suggestions to add to these lists? What factors might make the domain of philanthropy management more susceptible to cognitive traps? What solutions would you recommend?

    We look forward to your ideas.

    Tweet “#humanfactors of #philanthropy #management. Many opportunities for #bias.”

    Image Credit: Institute on Philanthropy

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