Holistic Decision-Making in the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

How the Savory Institute used Holistic Management to make a difficult decision

Just like many others around the globe, we at the Savory Institute have recently been faced with making difficult decisions due to the COVID-19 coronavirus and how it impacts in-person events.

It probably comes as no surprise that we have postponed our Global Network Gathering that was scheduled to occur at the end of March in Australia, but what we think might provide value here is to discuss how and why we made our decision.

A quick refresher:

Holistic Management utilizes a decision-making framework in which one's holistic context (i.e. their North Star for all decision-making) is run through a series of 7 quick-and-easy context checks.

These context checks consider the social, economic, and environmental impacts that may result from an action relative to your holistic context. Ultimately, they allow you to avoid unintended consequences from actions you may have considered taking without looking at the full picture.

By running any decision through this simple process, it allows anyone, regardless of whether you're managing a farm, a business, or any other complex system, to make decisions that are truly in line with your desired values.

For a more in-depth look at holistic decision-making, please see Ebook 5: Ensuring Your Decisions Are In Context.

Savory’s internal use of the context checks

The event: The Global Network Gathering, scheduled to occur this year on March 26-28th in NSW Australia, is a biennial event where Savory Network members (Hubs, Hubs in training, Accredited Professionals, Regenerating Members, and Land to Market partner brands) all come together for multiple days of learning, sharing, and deeper connection with one another.

The problem: COVID-19 is quickly spreading and we have a large gathering of global attendees in just a few weeks. We could postpone, cancel, or proceed with the event.

The action to be checked for alignment with our holistic context: Proceed with the event.

For context, these discussions occurred prior to COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic, before the US travel bans from Europe, before the CDC recommended against gatherings over 50 people, and, in general, while there was plenty of uncertainty relating to the progression of the virus.

With flights all booked, months of planning, and significant resources locked into the event, the Savory Institute staff all wrestled with this decision. After an initial team discussion, each team member took a few days to gather their thoughts, and we then came together as a team to discuss.

With everything on the table, we then ran the intended action through the 7 context checks:

1. Cause and Effect

Q: Does this action address the root cause of the problem?
A: Holding the Network Gathering wasn’t an action being taken to address a problem or logjam, so “cause and effect” does not apply here. On to the next…

2. Weak Link (social/biological/financial)

Social weak link
Q: Could this action, due to prevailing attitudes or beliefs, create a weak link between us and those whose support we need?
A: Holding the Gathering amidst a global virus outbreak could definitely create concerns and problems with those in the Network. If we were to expose Network members to the virus, if we were to jeopardize Allan Savory’s and others’ health, if people ended up stranded or quarantined away from home for weeks at a time due to traveling to the event… all of these scenarios describe a significant social weak link that would need to be addressed before proceeding with this action.

Biological weak link
Q: Does this action address the weakest link in the life cycle of this organism?
A: Strictly speaking, we are not the World Health Organization or the CDC, so we are not the ones fully “managing” this pandemic crisis. That said, for the purpose of this exercise there is value in looking at what each of us can individually contribute through our own actions. The “organism” in this biological scenario would be the COVID-19 virus, and since viruses don’t have a “life cycle” we can consider instead its transmission rate. By continuing with the event and bringing people together from all around the world, we would definitely NOT be addressing the weakest link in its transmission rate. Rather, we would be increasing its transmission. Addressing the weak point here would be enacting social distancing measures and canceling or postponing the event.

Financial weak link
Q: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production?
A: Of the three links in the chain of production – resource conversion, product, or marketing – Savory Institute had identified “product” as the weakest link this year for its Network programs. In other words, the offerings we provide to the Network (Savory Hubs and Accredited Professionals) are where we could stand to make the greatest improvements this year. Proceeding with the event would strengthen that weak link since we would be benefiting from face-to-face input and feedback from Network attendees whose views are critical to our plans for improvement.

3. Marginal Reaction

Q: Which action [proceed, cancel, or postpone] provides the greatest return toward the goal for each additional unit of time or money invested?
A: The goal of the Network Gathering is to strengthen the Global Network through face-to-face conversations and planning. Proceeding with the Gathering would enable us to convene many players under the same roof when otherwise there are logistical difficulties in connecting with one another (due to timezones, internet capabilities, etc), but of the three actions we could take here (proceed, cancel, or postpone), postponing the event would yield the greatest marginal reaction. We would be able to still meet in person and gain all of the benefits of doing so, but without risking any exposure to the virus, quarantine, etc.

4. Gross Profit Analysis

Q: Which enterprises contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?
A: The gross profit analysis check is not applicable to the Network Gathering since we are not comparing two or more revenue-generating enterprises.

5. Energy / Money (source/use)

Q: Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of our holistic context?
A: Energy: The source of the energy used with this action would be fossil fuel since our global attendees are all flying to Australia. Money: Given that Savory Institute is a nonprofit, the source of funds for putting on this event mostly come from both philanthropic support and earned income (see our annual reports for more details). These are appropriate sources in line with our context, and we had budgeted for these event expenses in Savory’s operating budget.

Q: Will the way in which the energy or money is used be in line with our holistic context?
A: If the event were to proceed as planned (with all expected attendees and no change in programming), the use of energy/money would be well spent in helping us strengthen the Network. The use is in line with the purpose described in our holistic context, and the magnitude of fossil fuel usage is quite small on the global scale compared to the carbon drawdown we stand to achieve by advancing our mission, so our use of fossil energy is justifiable in this scenario. However, to inform our decision-making, we had surveyed attendees and found that some were planning to cancel their travel, some were wanting the event to be canceled, and some of the Land to Market brand partners had pulled out due to corporate travel bans. This decrease in attendance greatly changes the marginal reaction of holding the event. Given Savory Institute’s responsibility to its donors to create the greatest possible impact with their dollars, and our own desire to maximize the impact from any use of fossil fuel energy, continuing with the event under current circumstances is not the best use of energy or money.

6. Sustainability

Q: If we take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in our holistic context?
A: In our holistic context, our future resource base describes our behavior as needing to be accountable, transparent, committed, results-oriented, respectful, honest, etc., and our surrounding environment as one of healthy ecosystem processes, rich in biodiversity, abundant wildlife, clear-running streams, etc. If we decided to proceed with the Gathering, given what we know at the present moment, we may be moving away from our future resource base, particularly as it relates to our behavior. If we decide to postpone the event, we could do so without adversely affecting our future resource base.

7. Gut Feel

Q: How do we feel about this action now? Will it lead to the quality of life we desire? Will it adversely affect the lives of others?
A: Each Savory team member weighed in with their gut feeling. Below is a rundown of each sentiment, and the consensus of the group leaned towards postponing the event based on gut feel:

  • Go – Three team members expressed a desire to continue with the event.
  • Leaning towards going – Two expressed a desire to continue with the event, but with hesitation due to the possible negative consequences.
  • Leaning towards not going – Three expressed a desire to postpone the event, but with hesitation due to all the invested resources thus far.
  • No-Go – Four expressed a desire to postpone the event.

Summarizing the checks

To summarize, we ran action of “proceed with the event” through the context checks with the following results:

  • Cause and effectN/A
  • Social weak linkThis isn’t a check one fails, but it serves as an alert that if a social weak link is identified, it needs to be addressed, or the action modified before moving forward.
  • Biological weak linkDoes not pass
  • Financial weak link – Passes
  • Marginal reactionDoes not pass. Postpone” gives a higher return than “proceed” or “cancel”
  • Energy/Money (source and use)Both the source and use of the energy and money pass if the event is postponed, but fail if the event proceeds (given what we know at the present time)
  • SustainabilityDoes not pass
  • Gut feelDoes not pass (7 in favor of postponing, 5 not wanting to change plans)

Final decision

Because of this, the Savory Institute made the decision to postpone the event until a later (TBD) date. This was not a fun decision to make since we greatly looked forward to seeing all of our Network members together in person, but because we followed the context checks, this was a rather easy decision to make.

The checks showed us that continuing with the event as planned would lead us away from our holistic context and our desired outcomes as a Network. Instead, we will explore other actions that can help strengthen the Network as a whole, and we will convene with the Network to replan the event.

Want to learn more about Holistic decision-making? Check out the Introduction to Holistic Management online course, the Holistic Management textbook, or the Foundations of Holistic Management ebook bundle.

Letter to the Network

Daniela Ibarra-Howell, CEO of the Savory Institute, sent the following message to the Savory Global Network following our decision to postpone the event:

“Dear Global Network,

As you know, the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has become a growing concern on the global scale and the situation is rapidly changing day-to-day and carrying a high degree of uncertainty. We at the Savory Institute have been monitoring and assessing very closely the evolution of the virus’ spread, associated risks, and our Network’s sentiments and decisions. Our on-going holistic assessment of the trends have brought us to this crucial moment. We want to update you on what steps we are taking.


Today, with all the current information, we have decided to postpone the 2020 Network Gathering until a later TBD date.

Major factors informing this decision include:

  • The risks associated with Network members traveling from all corners of the world to attend this event (and the potential for exposure and/or quarantine).
  • Our Land to Market “Frontier Founders” and brand partners canceling due to corporate travel bans (and associated negative impact to sections of the program).  
  • Multiple attendees canceling their travel plans due to COVID-19 concerns. Only 11 Hubs outside of Australia remained confirmed, including those represented in the SI team (Jefferson Center and Ovis21).
  • Multiple attendees expressing serious concerns about traveling due to COVID-19 that may result in further cancellations next week.
  • Running this decision to postpone the gathering through our holistic context checks.

Above all else, our top priority is the well-being of our Global Network members, and at this time we do not believe the benefits outweigh the potential costs and risks to justify moving forward with the 2020 Network Gathering as planned. We know this news may come as a relief for some, but certainly as a severe disappointment for most, as it is the case for all of the Savory Institute team.


  1. We will be determining the next steps for how we — as a Network — re-plan for a later date hopefully in 2020, depending on both Network input and how the COVID-19 virus continues to progress in the coming months. Many groups worldwide are exploring options for virtual convening and we will discuss this recourse as well.
  2. We will be refunding all registration fees for the Network Gathering. We will be sending additional details in the coming days on how this will be handled logistically, so keep an eye on your inbox for those details. 
  3. We will also do everything we can to support you given the last-minute nature of this change in plans, so please let us know if there are any additional circumstances or impacts that we may be able to help with.
  4. We will be connecting with you regularly via email with additional updates on all these fronts.

We have been greatly looking forward to our time together in Australia and to the great outcomes that would come from it, and we feel deeply impacted in our hearts by this decision. Now, we need to stay connected and engaged, and sharing our ideas so we can continue to nurture our community and deliver the gift of Holistic Management to the world. Please, in the meantime, feel free to reach out directly to me or to anyone in our team if you have any questions.   

Thank you for your understanding and patience as we iron out the details in the coming days and weeks on what a re-plan will look like.

All my best,


Daniela Ibarra-Howell

Daniela Ibarra-Howell

Daniela is CEO and co-founder of the Savory Institute. An agronomist with over 25 years of international experience, she has led the design and implementation of Savory’s revolutionary, entrepreneurial, grassroots, network-based strategy to reverse desertification and tackle the systemic food, water, and climate change crises.
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