We’re all living in the Stockdale Paradox now

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” - Admiral James Stockdale

By Damian O'Broin - Feb 9 2021

I’ve blogged about the Stockdale paradox, presented on it, but I’d never really lived it. Well, until now that is.

On 9 September 1965, James Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam. For the next seven years Stockdale was a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison. He was regularly beaten, tortured and denied medical treatment. He didn’t know how long he’d be there or whether he’d see his home and family again.

He never lost faith that he would – eventually – get out and get home. But while doing so, he never ignored the grim, brutal present he was enduring.

He did make it home. When asked by the great business writer Jim Collins who didn’t make it, he had a simple answer: the optimists. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox: you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

It’s about the most perfect encapsulation of where we all find ourselves right now as we head into the second year of Covid-19.

We’re all crying out for hope and certainty, for a timetable to return to something akin to normal, for the chance to do ordinary things again. But on a daily basis we’re having to deal with vaccine delays and uncertainties, worrying virus mutations, stubbornly high case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths, concern for our families, friends and ourselves, and the seemingly never-ending grind of restrictions and constraints.

Walking the line that Stockdale described – balancing faith, hope and realism – has never been more difficult for many of us.

What are the implications for us as fundraisers, leaders, colleagues and friends?


1. We need to put – and keep – well-being at the centre of what we do.

Everyone I know is finding it hard right now. It feels like January knocked the stuffing out of us all.  Your colleagues, your peers, your direct reports, your contractors and your managers are all dealing with trauma and the stress of the pandemic. And lots of us probably aren’t coping very well. Coronavirus should be a wake-up call to put well-being at heart of our organisational thinking. It should have been essential before, it is unavoidable now.

But we need to do well-being right. It can’t simply be a case of making it about the individual.  Well-being is structural and it’s cultural. There’s not much point paying lip service to well-being if the way we organise, structure and manage ourselves is detrimental to it.

The recent revelations about endemic bullying and harassment in the NCVO in the UK, and the #NotJustNCVO hashtag on twitter bring into focus the serious problems that many organisations in the not for profit sector clearly have.

Our sector has big ambitions and grand visions and we’re often trying to change the world on a shoestring. But we cannot allow the well-being of our staff to be sacrificed in the name of a mission statement or three year strategic plan.

Organisations that are trying to change the world need to be exemplars. We should be striving to build organisations that embody the values we believe in, and the reflect the vision of society we’re working for.  

If the well-being of the people who populate, work in, and drive our organisations isn’t central to that – in a genuine, meaningful way – then I don’t think we’re really about changing the world.


2. We need to understand how our supporters’ needs are changing over time.

We’ve spent a lot of the last year talking to donors. And as the pandemic has progressed, it’s been clear that their feelings, outlooks and needs have evolved. Mark Phillips has also written about this extensively.

Supporters are people too. And they’re also cycling through multiple emotional states on a daily basis. From fear, to worry, to anger, to exhaustion, to hope and to happiness. And as 2021 progresses, and the context of coronavirus shifts, so their needs are likely to shift too. But there are a number of needs that are immediately evident.

People need something useful to do.

The overwhelming scale of Covid-19 has left us feeling powerless and impotent, something that is exacerbated by social restrictions and lockdowns. Our donors and supporters don’t just want to help, they need to help. People are searching for purpose and meaning in lives that have been frozen or turned upside down. So give them something useful to do. Whether that’s donating money, taking action or giving their time, our supporters are standing ready and willing to help.

People need to feel part of something.

The reciprocity of our relationship with supporters has never been more important. Many of our donors are themselves dealing with loss, stress, uncertainty and have been hugely impacted by the pandemic. We need to recognise this and ensure we’re not simply treating donors as a tap to turn on. We’re in this together. And we need to be sure our donors and supporters know it. For me, the standout example of this has been this wonderful piece from RNLI last Spring. Watch it and you know that not only do they value your support, but they have your back.

People need to be entertained.

Donors’ need to be entertained – articulated by Bluefrog here – is one of the more overlooked donor needs. But at times like this it should come to the fore. It’s dark, cold and grim. We can’t meet our friends or leave our houses. And amidst all the worry we are bored senseless. What better time to think about the joy, fun and laughter we could be bringing to our supporters’ lives? Without doubt, there are massive opportunities for animal welfare charities here. Arts and culture organisations too. But the rest of us should also be exploring how we can light up a donor's day today.


3. We need to get comfortable with uncertainty.

I don’t know when this is going to end. No-one does. Who knows what bumps on the road we still have to face. And I don’t know quite how much the last year has changed us, but I know it has. There are way too many variables in play to feel comfortable making projections or predictions.

This obviously has huge implications for how we plan. Realistic planning horizons, already shrinking, have shortened further. Strategies will need to be more emergent – taking small steps, testing and learning as we go – and less deliberate.


4. We need to give people something to believe in.

We will only survive in the gutter if we can look at the stars. Stockdale may have had little time for baseless optimism, but he knew that we couldn’t survive without hope and faith.

We will get through this.

There are still tough days to come, but there are many, many reasons to hope. Alongside the pandemic of the last year we have witnessed extraordinary effort and dedication from people across society. We have seen an outpouring of philanthropy and generosity. And we have seen scientific advances and achievements in the rapid production of incredibly effective vaccines that will come to be regarded as among humanity’s greatest achievement.

The light may be a way off, but it is there and growing brighter.

And I would like to think that we’re not going back to normal, but moving forward to something better.

We need to give our supporters something to believe in too. It is not enough to ask for their help responding to the crisis of the last year. We need to inspire them with our dreams and give them a vision they can sign up to.

This has been hard. This is hard. But keep the faith.

P.S. If you want to delve a bit deeper, this article on the Stockdale Paradox and crisis leadership is well worth a read.

Tagged with: pandemiccoronavirusplanning

Damian O'Broin     @damianobroin


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