Scenario Planning: A Tool for Grantmakers When Uncertainty is High

One of my favorite quotes comes from a song John Lennon wrote for his four-year-old son, Sean. As Lennon comforts his son and muses on the days to come, he sings “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” 

It’s a brilliant reflection on a fundamental paradox in our lives, and challenges the common belief that with good planning we can achieve even our highest aspirations. 

It’s also a reminder that no matter how much we prepare, the end result is very rarely in our control. We’d be wise to remain open to the unexpected and deal with it. 

Scenario planning amidst a pandemic

Working in the midst of a pandemic has made us more inclined to question the value of planning. The New York Times recently explored this trend and offered advice on “how to cope when everything keeps changing.” Suggestions ranged from “overcoming mental barriers” to taking “immediate steps…no matter how small” and “reframing the situation.” 

It would be impossible to pursue bold and audacious goals if grantmakers were unwilling to respond and rapidly adapt to new circumstances. 

This is why we built Scenario Planning into the GivingData platform. It’s designed to help foundations easily create grantmaking plans when uncertainty and risk are high, and update them on the fly when “life happens.” 

Let’s look at some specific use cases where our Scenario Planning tool has proven especially useful.

Managing Ideas in Scenario Planning is as easy as using a spreadsheet and even more intuitive.
Managing "Ideas" in Scenario Planning is as easy as using a spreadsheet and even more intuitive.

From crisis situations to business as usual

When Hurricane Harvey struck in August of 2017, one of our clients had to quickly modify its grantmaking plans to free up resources for an emergency fund. Program officers used Scenario Planning to revisit their funding priorities for the remainder of the year and create three budget reallocation scenarios. 

Staff identified ideas for grants to postpone or amend so they could meet the more immediate needs of their grantees and the populations they served. The Scenario Planning tool automatically showed all the data they needed to inform their decisions.  

In March of 2020, Scenario Planning was the tool of choice for many of our clients when they needed to craft agile responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But that’s not to say the tool is only for crisis situations. There are plenty of “business as usual” cases where an easy-to-use and flexible planning tool can enhance foundation preparedness.

For example, a common application of the Scenario Planning tool is the annual budgeting process. One foundation we work with invites program staff to use the tool to capture ideas for new grants or renewals in the coming year. The ideas can be associated with a specific organization or project, but it’s not required. They could be as high level as, “I know I want to support this organization, but still need to discuss with them," or “I know I want to invest in a project on this issue but I have to do some research to identify who could be the best partner to carry out the work.” 

Set reminders for grant renewals and Scenario Planning will make sure
        you don’t forget.
Set reminders for grant renewals and Scenario Planning will make sure you don’t forget.

Once preliminary scenarios are mapped out, foundation staff review and refine program requests until they have a final budget version to submit for board approval. 

So long spreadsheets

Just imagine doing this the old way, with a mix of spreadsheets, Post-It Notes, and whiteboards. With our Scenario Planning tool, as you move from planning to execution, you can easily refine your ideas until they become grants. When used in conjunction with GivingData’s CRM feature, you can seamlessly add interactions with potential grantees or peers and collect emails, documents, and articles about an organization or an idea. 

A simple budget summary view rolls up all the data in real-time
A simple budget summary view rolls up all the data in real-time.

Ok, you may be asking, “Where’s the monkey wrench? What happens if the idea turns out not to be ready for funding this year?” 

The tool is designed to handle that scenario as well. With one click, you can move an idea to next year or just remove it from the list if circumstances change. Similarly, if you find a better fit for a partner organization to do the work, no problem. Simply replace the organization’s name. All the data, information, and documents you’ve collected seamlessly move over. 

One final example. 

Suppose one of your key grantees is undergoing an unplanned leadership transition. Or external circumstances, such as a sudden political or policy change create a significant obstacle to their work. You may have to put some payments on hold and redirect the funds. Now what? Here again Scenario Planning makes all the difference. Your newly-released funds automatically appear in your dashboard, and from there, you can redirect them as you see fit.

I hope these examples reassure you that, no matter how extreme the circumstances, we should stop worrying too much about trying to control what comes next. If we adopt the right mindset and have the right tools, we may discover that the unexpected is the opportunity that moves us forward rather than the challenge that sets us back. 

Or, to borrow the words of John Lennon: 

“Close your eyes,

Have no fear,

The monster's gone, 

He's on the run, 

And your [GivingData tool’s] here.” 

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