Give Up Your Addiction to Quick Changes

Artwork from Amplifer Art — Noa Denmon, Security is Freedom
Yellow background with multi-racial and diverse people sharing a meal

Note: It is Asian Pacific Islander heritage month. Uncle Frankie (everyone’s uncle) shared the Asian Pacific Virtual Showcase with a diverse array of videos from API artist. The videos are free until the end of the month.

COVID19 has changed my relationship with time. In the early days of the pandemic, my schedule flipped overnight. One of the first changes I made was turning off the alarm clock – I haven’t used it since. Within hours and days we also had to figure out how to take care of each other. Quickly people raised money to keep restaurant workers working and people fed. Schools had to rework their entire system to get food to kids, and childcare running. Frontline workers had to navigate unseen dangers and figure out how to keep their families and roommates safe. Looking back we did this all quickly and it felt good.

Now it is time to give up some of our addiction to these quick hits of success. They were important. We had to do them, we had to take care of people and I’m glad we did. Now we need to start thinking about the long term, the long slog of recovery and make longer-term investments.

We Give Up Quickly

I was talking to a friend who runs a program that supports students with micro-grants to help with immediate health and safety needs. She purposefully makes it low-barrier for people trying to access the funds. Because of this she doesn’t track a lot of demographic data. My friend is now worried funders will start pulling out because they want quicker results in proving the micro-grants are making a difference. They want her to prove paying a rent check is keeping a student in school and learning. While this may sound reasonable, it is more complicated than it sounds.

We’re in a society of quick fixes – email is quick, text is even quicker – present a problem and expect a solution. Yet human problems are often quick-and-slow in the making (quick like during the pandemic, but slow if you think about a person’s overall life and lack of stability) and slower to resolve. As my friend and I talked through her data problem I mentioned when I was on a nonprofit board, Neighborhood House, they often said it would take a minimum of three years, more like five years, to get a family stabilized. My friend nodded and said she thought the timeline was more like ten years. Understanding these real life timelines, we need to give up thinking that quick solutions can achieve outsized results.

We also need to stop thinking we can fix systemic problems quickly. Yes paying a person’s rent is super important and will help keep them housed and maybe give them the grace and space they need to get back on their feet. But we shouldn’t expect a one-time fix to lead to better grades, a college degree, food and housing stability, etc.

We like to give up quickly and pivot strategies all the time. I constantly joke/lament that several of the foundations I work with are constantly in “refresh,” “re-strategizing,” “strategic planning,” or “change-cycle.” The only constant is their constant changing in search for the magical strategy that will get them the biggest return on their philanthropic investment. It is a privilege to constantly be searching for the next thing versus slogging away and seeing small gains as important.

I remember once (many years ago) applying for a job at a foundation and on the job description it clearly stated “know when to cut bait, and move on.” It is important to figure out when we’re investing in the wrong strategies, but also balance that thinking with has the investment not been given time to prove itself? Incremental gains overtime can lead to huge shifts over a generation.

COVID recovery will mean thinking about what we learned from COVID and keeping those lessons going for the future. The focus needs to shift from responding to recovering for the next 10-20 years and beyond. I remember hearing on the radio a commentator saying if we only have pandemics every 100 years we forget how to respond since the generation who experienced it is no longer around. What if we give equal attention to remembering and recovering?

Addiction to Quickness

One the policy side, I was talking to my friend Liv. She works with elected officials and is very good humored about. Like all of us they are addicted to the quick fixes. Someone emails with a problem and they rush to fix it. They claim they are doing “good work” because they solved a problem, they were responsive – they were even responsive to people and communities of color who are saying “we can’t and shouldn’t be forced to wait any longer!” While true, Liv sighed, the truth that when the elected respond to the quick fixes they often loose sight of the longer term changes needed and constantly want to change strategies. Saying yes to fixing one quick problem takes away energy and sometimes closes pathways needed for longer term change.

Liv told me how a consultant working with them told them they need to give up hit of responding to a Tweet or email solving a problem. They pushed back saying part of their job is to be responsive. The consultant reminded them they need to be responsive to solving problems, not the one constituent who knows how to email them.

We also need to realize while some of the problems we are keenly feeling appear quick to show up, they really aren’t new or quick to pop up. Police abuse of Black people has been with us since the founding of America, it is just now with video more common place more people can witness it. Inadequate healthcare and lack of information (internet) are now exposed by COVID, but these too have been slow burning problems. We need to create urgency around these problems and stick with solutions for the long haul.

Give Up the Quick Hit and Be Satisfied with a Slower Pace

The quick hit of solving problems wears off, so we need to train ourselves to see the rewards of slower paced incremental changes as well. These smaller changes build up if we let them.

I will caveat all of this by saying it can be argued there are times where small incremental changes are not the right approach. All of this work is nuanced and context matters.

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