Staying Focused While Taking the Long View

If you invest $10,000 in the stock market today, you might expect your investment to grow something like this:

In 20 years, the ROI on your $10,000 investment is significant and positive. While there are important differences between investing in financial markets and promoting social change, the path to progress is similarly non-linear. Social change requires fierce urgency, but it also requires patience – the ability to take the long view.

Just like the growth of financial investments, the pace of social change varies over time. There will be periods of rapid transformation in policy and practice and periods of stagnation. There will be ups and downs – times when it may be sorely tempting to cut your losses and run for cover. These are the moments when we feel like we’re losing ground on the issues we care about. It’s the backlash to progress. And it’s in these moments that we need to be the most thoughtful and strategic. There’s certainly no guarantee that every setback you and your cause experience is purely temporary.  But if you believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice you may have the fortitude to stick with it–just as market rate investors can remind themselves that investments in the stock market as a whole have grown reliably over time.

Sometimes our impatience with the pace of progress leads us to try to take shortcuts to social change – not engaging the communities impacted, ignoring politics, etc. In market terms, this is day trader behavior. Taking shortcuts might yield positive, but often temporary, progress. 

It does not transform systems.

It’s still important to acknowledge that pursuing social change is not exactly like investing in the traditional sense.  Changing systems, especially when deeply rooted in inequity, requires both time AND effort – we can’t count on time or effort alone to bring change. And social issues are not markets – though they often result from market failures. So, if we understand that change takes time, how do we stay focused in the interim? Staying focused has everything to do with expectations. 

Here are some of our tips to get started:

  • Make sure you’re ready to take the long view. 
    • Example: Climate change is a very complex problem – caused by more than a century of human activity. Even with some understanding of how to reverse or halt the Earth’s temperature rise, it will take sustained effort at the individual, community, and global levels over many years to make a real difference.
  • Recognize at the outset that a portion of your giving will be the philanthropic equivalent of R&D and even loss leaders. 
    • Example: Breakthroughs in medical research are often preceded by a decade (or, in some cases, several decades) of false starts and paths abandoned. Think of some of giving your giving in this way – opportunities to deepen your and others’ learning and understanding in order to develop a more effective solution. 
  • Reframe failures as opportunities to evolve your theory of the problem and to adjust strategy. 
    • Example: A false start – no matter how crushing it may feel in the moment – is really just an opportunity to begin again. When your advocacy efforts for a particular policy fail, it’s a chance to broaden and reshape your coalition for the next legislative session.

Social change is by definition social and therefore is not entirely in any one person or organization’s control. Consider who could join you in your march for change. Whatever issue you care about, whether it be criminal justice system reform or environmental sustainability, don’t be complacent. Urgency is critical, but don’t expect resolution in the next year or next election cycle. To make progress, we must take the long view, setting realistic goals and preparing for the inevitable ups and downs. As the popular saying goes: “We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, and greatly underestimate what we can accomplish in ten…”