Enough with the shoulds.

I don’t know about you, but my twitter feed has a heck of a lot of shoulds directed at nonprofits. It seems lots of folks have lots of certain advice to give nonprofits in this time of a global pandemic and economic shut down.

Me, I’ve never lived through a pandemic before. Well, not as an adult. Or at least lived through one that shut down huge portions of the US and world economies and ways of life.

I was born on the downside of the polio epidemic and remember getting both vaccines in elementary school. My college generation just missed the HIV- AIDS pandemic. I didn’t get ill in the 1968 flu pandemic — or I did but don’t remember it at all.

I did survive the 2008 recession and recovery as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. And yes, there were experiences from that recession that are useful today. One of those lessons for fundraisers has been with us in both bad economic times and good… don’t make giving decisions for your donors. If you assume they are too poor, too stressed, too whatever, and you never ask, you can be pretty sure they won’t give to you.

But all the surety of the COVID should spreaders? I don’t see should being being used in its dictionary definition as probability, e.g. that amount of investment should be enough. Instead what I’m seeing is should used as certainty, that is, a command, as in do this now.

Not me. I’ve been trying to eliminate should from my own word repertoire since the editor of my first book (How are we doing?) drummed it off the page and out of my writing. While I resisted the critique, it turned out to be an excellent lesson for me.

Avoiding the shoulds have enabled me to work with my clients to help them create the solutions that work for them. It helps to ask now and then if there is any actual research to back up one of those should instructions. And if there is, under what circumstances and for whom?

We are living in a time where we don’t know what will happen next.

Nor do we really know what will happen if. What we do know is that everything is uncertain.

Let’s reframe our thinking and acknowledge that these times require adaptive management for our nonprofits. Yes, we can look back to see what insight the past might offer us. We can posit thoughtful scenarios to guide plans for different responses.

We can take past lessons, combine them with new advice and our experience and our  instinct, and try something to see if it works. If it does, great… pass it along. If it doesn’t, let’s share what happened so we can learn from that too.

Not every organization is experiencing this upside down world in the same way. So to my consultant colleagues in the nonprofit world, I’m wondering what might happen if we abandon the shoulds (yes, I know, they are really good for self-promotion). What will we learn if we admit we don’t have the answers?




P.S. Okay, two shoulds. Wash your hands. Observe physical distancing.

More reading:

Feeling blue? Chin up, get to work, there’s lots of thinking and planning to

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