Foxes and Hedgehogs: Governance in Uncertain Times

Hilary Pearson

I had the pleasure recently of participating in a panel discussion with the Toronto Arts Foundation and its Creative Champions Network, which provides guidance on good governance to Toronto’s many arts board directors. The theme of the discussion was Some Damn Good Ideas for Building Back Better. The conversation was led by Jini Stolk, the CCN coordinator and long-time champion of better nonprofit governance in the arts (see for example her excellent review in The Philanthropist of John Tusa’s On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom)

I tackled the topic by reflecting on what it takes today to cope with the enormous change and uncertainty all around us. Here are my thoughts, framed for foundation and charity board members in all sectors.

To get ideas or insights I often listen to the Ezra Klein Show podcast from the New York Times. The other day I heard an interview on the show with Phil Tetlock an American psychologist.

Tetlock quoted the ancient Greek poet Archilochus who wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The philosopher Isaiah Berlin revived and expanded on this idea in his famous 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox.

Tetlock has specialized in understanding the cognitive qualities of people who can forecast better than others, the so-called “superforecasters”. He uses the fox and hedgehog concept as a way of identifying two cognitive styles.

Foxes have different strategies for different problems. They are comfortable with nuance; they can live with contradictions. They can take the “outsider” view.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, focus on the big picture. According to Berlin and to Tetlock, hedgehogs have one grand theory which they extend into many domains. They take the “insider” view.

Foxes are sceptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. They are pragmatic and open-minded, aggregating information from a wide variety of sources. They talk in terms of probability and possibility, rather than certainty.

Both cognitive styles are valuable, but in a context of high uncertainty fox types may be better at assessing situations and forecasting strategies for coping.

What characterizes this context of high uncertainty for the nonprofit sector? Here are just a few elements:

  • The intersectional impacts of several crises and opportunities: the health crisis, the crisis of racial inequality, the crisis of our reckoning with colonial history and the opportunity of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples of Canada. 
  • Pressures on philanthropic donors, on business models, on employees, on audiences
  • Shifting conditions of work, and changing employee expectations

High uncertainty suggests that you might want more people with fox-style thinking at your board table today. How might a fox thinking style be helpful right now?

Trying to see clearly as board members is enormously challenging. Fox style thinkers will bring challenging “but…although…however…on the other hand” questions to the table, as Tetlock puts it. They want to test possibilities based on data or trends not on personal convictions.

What could this challenge thinking look like? Here are ideas for you in three specific areas: revenue raising, governance and strategy

Revenue raising, especially philanthropic revenue. Fox style thinking would suggest that conventional approaches need to change. You need to meet donors and funders where they are and make the connection between your offer and their new need (to support diverse voices, to attend to previously unheard communities and perspectives, to make a gesture of reconciliation…etc). Use “but” or “however” questions to test your assumptions about what donors want. Test your thinking about who your supporters and donors are and perhaps start looking for them in unexpected place. Instead of “this donor will support us because we offer the most effective program” ask “this donor cares about effectiveness…but more donors are supporting diverse programming…should we think about that?” Today’s context opens new doors.

Governance. Fox style thinking suggests looking for new directors and members in “not the usual places”. This is in fact a good time to look for the unusual suspects. You want to avoid group think and confirmation bias more than ever. You want to hear from more foxes at the table. This is the time to say to your Nominating Committee “I know this person…. but maybe we should look at people we don’t know? OR …on the other hand maybe we should invite someone none of us know?

Strategy. Fox style thinking and agility of mind are essential right now in considering your organization’s strategic options. Plans are going to have to be fluid. It’s important to avoid preconceived ideas and to check assumptions often. This is the time to say “We have been successful in pursuing this plan…but what might Plan B look like? OR …although it would no longer be true if circumstances X and Y change.” This kind of thinking can be very generative, and generative thinking is a governance duty every bit as important as the fiduciary one. There are many ways in which fox-type thinkers could add value right now to a nonprofit organization, be it a funder or an operating charity…if only to challenge us with “but…however…on the other hand” questions.

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