One cannot be all things to all people. While this is accepted knowledge when it comes to an individuals desire to please everyone, we take a less critical eye to the efforts of organizations (regardless of sector). Two questions seem necessary when considering any endeavor to contribute to social good:
- Is our goal to create immediate returns or improved outcomes in the long-term?
- Who will be hurt – or, at the minimum, not helped – by our effort?
We rarely argue that these challenging questions exist, so we don’t wrestle with them. On this blog, we recognize that some conversations are “sectored,” but some of our challenges are universal. From Wall Street to West Africa, we must confront the tension that exists between the urgency of today and our desire for a better tomorrow.
We often do not speak honestly about the incentives in play. In education, the near-term usually wins because our most immediate stakeholders – teachers, students, and their parents – drive the conversation. But, what happens when the best possible solution for today sacrifices our greatest hope for the future? What happens when we have to choose?
Jeff, on a couple occasions, has written about the current Occupy movement, which I see as the best current example of a revolt against short-term thinking. Since companies answer to shareholders, and shareholders want good returns on an annual (or quarterly) basis, we see Corporate America regularly answering to the now, regardless of its impact on the later. The people engaged in Occupy are speaking out against that.
Similarly, we are rarely honest about the scope of our impact. Jeff Duncan-Andrade talks about the difference between picking flowers and growing gardens. When we take an efficiency approach to education – picking motivated, talented, or connected students (or flowers) – we actually hurt those left behind. When we aim to help these chosen students, we do so at a cost to all students. In education, this means deciding between helping students escape their communities (picking flowers) and building stronger communities through education (growing gardens). Similarly, for-profit institutions answer to their shareholders, sometimes at a cost of the broader American economy.
I may be biased. I believe we rarely can attend to our long-term and short-term needs simultaneously. I also believe that few programs serve all people. So, in the end, how can we encourage people to think about the long term? How can we get people – across sectors – to invest in the long-term health of our society? How can we get people to make decisions that benefit society, even at a cost to the individual?
To move forward, we must have these conversations candidly. I would love to hear about programs that are effectively creating opportunities and influencing incentives in a way that encourages long-term investment. How can we – in fields as different as Education and Investment Banking – encourage stakeholders to take a longer view? In a world where selfishness actually benefits some, how can we get those that benefit to consider others?
Photo Credit: NailaJ