- Decision-making processes easily become contentious and divorced from the reality they're trying to change.
- Focusing on evidence helps root decision-making in reality.
- Because evidence is impersonal, it lifts decision-making beyond the personal to focus on the common good.
- In nonprofit organizations, evidence-based decision-making helps balance passion and discipline.
This article is part two of a five-part series about evidence-based decision-making in nonprofit organizations.
Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Or did he? It’s exactly the kind of thing the nineteenth-century American author might have said. And a quick Google search links to multiple sites attributing the maxim to him. However, the attribution is a case of what it describes: It’s a good story; it just happens not to be true.
How do I know? Well, to be fair, I can’t be certain that this phrase never crossed Twain’s lips or issued from his pen. But a quick search reveals that evidence for Twain’s authorship is weak at best. None of the attributions cite a particular work of Twain’s or come from reliable sources. And, just a little more digging reveals that Twain is not only one of the most quoted authors in the history of American letters but also one of the most misquoted. As one website put it:
“Often, quotes not actually written or spoken by Mark Twain are attributed to him, because it lends those quotes an undeserved respect. Not this one, though. He must have said this one. I mean, look, it has his name after it and everything.”
~ Mark Twain
Humor aside, however, who cares whether Mark Twain said it or not? What difference does it make?
Personally, I care. Misattributions bug me. To me, they signal intellectual laziness and inadequate respect for truth. But, to most people, all that shows is that I’m a grumpy, old man. Websites like brainyquote.com and Google Images are full of misattributed proverbs and folk wisdom. Inspirational “quotes,” such as Einstein’s “You never fail until you stop trying” adorn the walls of countless offices, gyms, and classrooms, and no-one seems to care that there’s no evidence that the Nobel laureate ever said any such thing. In the age of deepfake, when (with a little help from AI) Presidents Biden, Trump and Obama can be found on YouTube telling each other dad jokes, the misattribution of a humorous remark to Mark Twain is surely the least of our problems.
So, when does it matter whether or not something is supported by evidence?
I’d argue that it only really matters when believing it has practical implications. I’m thinking here not only of life-or-death decisions, such as cancer diagnoses, murder trials, and flight path calculations but also of the kinds of decision made routinely by boards — to authorize or reject a proposal, to hire or fire a chief executive, and so on. All such decisions have two things in common: First, their outcomes make a real difference in the world; second, this difference matters to the decision-makers. When either condition is lacking, evidence matters less.
This might seem trivial. But it’s not. Board time is often taken up with debates that have little or no bearing on practice. Similarly, it’s common for board members to care mainly about one or two pet topics, while giving short shrift to other topics on which they are called to decide. In such cases, evaluation of evidence generally takes a back seat to the playing out of personal and ideological differences or political maneuvering. Accordingly, the first thing board presidents can do to support evidence-based decision-making is to be clear — both to themselves and to board members — about which decisions actually need to be evidence-based and which don’t.
For example, if a board president doesn’t want to risk upsetting the CEO or is committed to pursuing a given policy regardless of whether it is effective or not, it would be both disingenuous and wasteful of members’ time to discuss evidence, respectively, about the CEOs performance or the policy’s implementation. Only when the means and motive exist to base decisions on evidence is there any point trying to do so.
But there’s a positive flip side to this: If you want to take the personal out of decision-making, there’s no better way than to focus on evidence. Doing so forces everyone involved in the decision-making process to set their personal preferences to one side — however temporarily — and consider objective data relevant to the issue they are discussing. As studies of motivated reasoning show, focusing on evidence doesn’t eliminate personal biases completely. But it can weaken their hold on group decision-making and make room for discussion that is more objective and rational.
So, why bother with evidence?
First, because reality is hard to change. The more accurate your view of it is, the greater your impact on it is likely to be. Evidence helps to form that view and keep it accurate. It lowers the risk that well-intentioned planning and hard work will leave reality unchanged.
Second, because evidence is impersonal. When discussion gets heated, focusing on evidence cools things down. In non-profit boards, people volunteer their time, energy, and other resources to address social problems that matter to them personally. This personal connection to a collective mission is a mixed blessing. It keeps members highly engaged but can make decision-making overly emotional, as individuals take the outcomes personally. Focusing on evidence enables the group to rise above their personal agendas and preferences to keep the group on task in their mission to improve the general good.
How to create cultures in which evidence-based discussions are the norm rather than the exception is the topic of my next article in this series. Stay tuned!
Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (2016). The mechanics of motivated reasoning. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(3), 133-140. doi:https://doi-org.proxygw.wrlc.org/10.1257/jep.30.3.133