Taking Risks

Nonprofits: It’s time to start taking some risks

Nope, I said it. The big, bad four-letter word: RISK. 

It may seem like a pretty insensitive thing to be talking about right now, considering the fact that we’re still in the middle of a massive global pandemic, an economic downturn, a long-overdue racial awakening, a truly terrifying election season, a national mental health crisis, out-of-control wildfires, and I am sure several other things that are escaping my very burdened mind right now.

Why on Earth, as nonprofit organizations dealing with the individual and social impact of all these compounding crises, would we ever want to take on any other risks at a time like this?!?!

One reason: our very survival depends on it.

In every single one of the situations mentioned above, someone (or more accurately, MANY someones) had to take a risk in order for the rest of us to even have a chance at making it out the other side:

  • Doctors, nurses, and countless frontline workers have been risking their lives for months to save others, even prioritizing strangers’ health and wellbeing over spending time with their own families and loved ones.
  • Firefighters and first responders across the west coast are risking their safety, and their family’s sense of security, every time they rush into another out-of-control blaze to try to tame the fires and salvage what’s left of homes, forests, and dreams. 
  • Small business owners have been risking their entire livelihoods to keep their doors open and their teams employed, many not knowing how long they’ll be able to continue before their grace period simply runs out.
  • Every single person who’s stepped-out and stepped-up to support the Black Lives Matter movement has risked hatred, bigotry, and personal harm to stand up for what’s right, and force others to recognize what’s wrong.
  • Progressive political candidates who were inspired to run for the very first time are risking public rejection, unfounded hatred, and radical fear-mongering as they try to change the system from the inside out.
  • Individuals dealing with anxiety and depression, whether brought on by the pandemic or a long-standing part of their lives, have risked being mocked, ridiculed, or even ostracized for being honest about the struggles they’re going through, in the hopes of normalizing the conversation so others can find the courage to ask for help, too.

Risk, in all its shapes and forms, is an inherent part of human life. We may be witnessing some of our history’s most extreme individual examples right now, but even getting into our cars to drive to the store for milk, stepping onto an airplane, trying a new food that we may or may not be allergic to—they’re all risks that we take in our personal lives, knowingly or unknowingly, every single day.

Yet somehow, as businesses and organizations, we’ve been so conditioned to avoid risk—to fear it, even—that we’re blind to the fact that it can often be the single greatest accelerator of significant and meaningful progress.

There’s a scientific reason for this. Individually and collectively, we’re all challenged with what psychologists call the Negativity Bias: a “tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events,” which leads us to “make decisions based on negative information more than positive data.” 

When we think about the firefighter example, for instance, we focus on the fact that this brave man or woman may get injured or killed in the line of duty, rather than considering the positive (and more likely) outcome of his or her actions: saving homes and lives. Before you say “that’s just seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty,” it’s not—it’s seeing the world through fact, rather than perception.

According to the NFPA, only 48 firefighters in the entire U.S. died in 2019 while performing their lifesaving work. While the loss of any life is a tragedy, this statistic shows us that our perception of their everyday “risk” is far greater than it is. Firefighters themselves know this. That’s why they’re willing to take that risk. Instead of focusing on the potential negative outcomes, they’re inspired by the more probable positive ones. The same is true in each of the other situations I shared earlier, as well:

JFK Quote

 

  • Saving strangers’ lives.
  • Keeping small business’ doors open and their teams employed.
  • Standing up for what’s right, and forcing others to recognize what’s wrong.
  • Changing the system from the inside out.
  • Normalizing the conversation around mental health.

 

When you strip away all of the cultural baggage, risk, at its core, isn’t really about hazards or danger. It’s about being open to taking an informed, calculated chance. It implies exposure, not an expectation. It describes the nature of engaging in an action or behavior without being 100% certain of the outcome. To many people and organizations, it’s that very thought—the lack of certainty or guaranteed safety—that’s really the scary part.

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How does this apply to our work as nonprofits? 

Think about the last time you developed or were presented with, a great idea that you believed would be incredibly successful for your organization. Your immediate, instinctive reaction was excitement. But almost as quickly, you pumped the brakes, and found yourself saying “well, let’s get some feedback first, just to be safe.” Rather than embracing your initial response that recognized the potential positive outcomes, you decide to spend your valuable time and energy digging for the potentially negative ones. You solicit opinions from ten different people within your organization, all of whom will invariably find some personally-driven motivation for casting doubt. You search for other examples of similar work that went horribly wrong (hello, negativity bias!). You ask for proof that the proposal is going to work, even though you intellectually know that nothing in this world is 100% certain. And what happens? After all of the poking and prodding, you’ve talked yourself out of the upside of the idea, because you’ve been paralyzed by fear of the downside. Instead of embracing the possibilities of taking a risk, you’ve played it safe. 

And yes—safety may sound nice and cozy, especially right now. But just a quick Google image search will tell you that playing it safe is the fastest way for us to get absolutely nowhere meaningful. 

Without taking a chance, there’s no possibility of creating change. 

Without believing that a positive outcome is possible, there is no way for us to move closer to it.

Without thinking differently about our approaches, we’ll be stuck on repeat forever.

Without taking a risk, there is no way to reach the reward.

The most ironic part of all of this, of course, that NOT taking a risk—in service of a better future—is actually one of the greatest risks in itself. And it’s the one, that as an industry dedicated to improving the world around us, we simply can’t afford not to embrace.