Board Leadership: Living in — and planning for — interesting times

February 28, 2017

Life Track

Staying on Track in an Unpredictable World

We’re just a few weeks into 2017, and it already seems hackneyed to talk about how unpredictable the world has become. It’s not surprising that many nonprofits are already experiencing stress from the many variables that change in our situation every day.

It’s tempting to throw up your hands in frustration or adopt a “let’s wait and see what happens” posture. But this is the worst choice you can make right now.

Nonprofits that continue to succeed in these challenging times will become more strategic than ever in their thinking and planning.

Here are some ideas for how to keep your organization on track — even when it seems like the track has vanished.


Know what you don’t know. With all the news swirling around us, it’s easy to start thinking that there’s no valuable information to be had. But this is just not true. Real uncertainty is the lack of knowledge that remains once you have fully investigated an issue.

Maybe you’re concerned about the effect that the new gubernatorial administration will have on state funding next year. While it’s true that you can’t know who is going to win, you can research the positions of the top candidates so you can better predict how they might act if they are elected. This allows you to start planning the strategies you will use in the event of different outcomes.

The example of an election illustrates the concept of a trigger event. Trigger events are moments when you can know something you didn’t know before, allowing you to act with more assurance.

Once the election is over, we will know who the next governor will be. But by the time that happens, it’s almost too late to start making a plan. If you want to maximize your chances of getting the outcome you want, you should be planning now for what you’ll do in different circumstances.

Most people have heard of this technique, commonly called scenario planning – and even if you’ve never done it formally, you’ve probably thought about issues in the same way: “well, this could happen, and we would do this, or that could happen so we would do something else.”


You can expand on this kind of thinking to build strategies for meeting the uncertainty in your world so that you are prepared to be pro-active as conditions change. Use this worksheet to help you as you walk through the steps:

  1. Determine the unknowns that really matter to your organization. Sure, there are a lot of variables, but which ones are really stopping you from making a solid decision?
  2. Identify the factors that could influence the outcome. What is uncertain here? Who is controlling the uncertainty?
  3. When are you likely to have enough information to act? These trigger events are like road signs on the highway, showing you when it’s time to make a decision. In addition to obvious trigger events like the result of an election, your triggers might also be passage of legislation that affects your constituents or issue areas, economic events, funding decisions, decisions made by other organizations that influence the industry, or decisions made by partner organizations that affect what you can or cannot do.
  4. Consider the best and worst case scenarios – these aren’t your dream state or your nightmare. They are the best and worst outcomes that are actually likely to happen. You can also discuss a “most likely” outcome that details what you think will probably happen when all the variables shake out.
  5. Plan your approach. The right time to consider what you should do when conditions change is before they change. This is particularly important if your organization values consensus-based decision making, which is harder to do under time pressure. If your organizational culture won’t permit you to act until everyone is on board with a strategy…build the consensus for that strategy well in advance of an expected change in external conditions.
  6. Consider the finances. Scenario planning can also help you to gain a better understanding of your organization’s financial security under different conditions. When you understand how your revenue or expenses (or other in-kind resources) may shift, you give yourself some time to plan for it – rather than just reacting in the moment.

This basic structure can help you to stay focused on your mission and impact, rather than falling into survival mode. And this strategic focus is critical since your constituents will often need different things from you as times change.

The services that were needed last year may not be right anymore – people may urgently want or need something different. The organizations that can adapt to meet these changing needs are the ones that will retain their value in the community.

Being able to say if this happens, then we will… is a powerful tool for staying strategic and in control of your organization, even when times are tough.


Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity (, a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also affiliated with The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business (

Illustrations at top: via Creative Commons