Long-term thinking, short-term change in civil society institutions

By Daniel Mackintosh

NOTE – this blog came out of a number of conversations amongst London Citizens Organisers and the work of the Reach Hub, which is currently building a long term campaign to tackle Special Educational Needs, a goal which reaches beyond any election cycle.

On 10 June 2021, at age 36, I became a Dad for the first time. I sobbed as my daughter, Ayelet, cried for the first time in the delivery room, relieved that she was alive (what a set of lungs!). Over the next few weeks of paternity leave, I continued to read about the floods in Germany, the heat dome in North America or the Amazon forest burning. For the first time, I imagined the world she was going to inherit by the time she was 30.

This blog is an attempt to marry two parts of my identity: as an organiser, my training to support communities to seek short term, winnable victories – often connected to election cycles – with my need, as a father, to act on long term, transformational issues and secure victories big enough to shape the world my daughter will grow up into.

It will briefly outline the risks of the short-term thinking embedded in the market and the state, reflect on why long-term thinking is so important, and then suggest a few practices to bring long-term thinking into regular organising.

The risk of short-term thinking

Our culture is dominated by short term thinking. The market cares about the share price, influenced by the quarterly profit report. Rather than investing for the creation of long-term value, shares reflect short term profit. The democratic state’s time horizon is dictated by election cycles: what is a quick win, with short term impact, that a politician can deliver in 4 years? Add to that a 24-hour news cycle, social media echo chambers which encourage us to think that change happens with ‘likes’ or retweets, and our bias towards caring about the challenges we face in the short term, rather than those that will affect us in 5 years, and it is easy to see how we can get trapped in the now.

And yet, climate change, pandemics, job losses due to roboticization, the impact of social media and biodiversity loss are all going to fundamentally reshape our world in the next 10-20 years. To simply react will force us to fit into someone else’s plan, rather than seeing these challenges as opportunities to organise to improve our lives. For instance, instead of waiting for roboticization to arrive, what do we need to do to create stable, well paid, ‘robot-safe’ work? Instead of waiting for our cities to flood due to rising rivers, how do we create flood defences that create good, long term work, new green communal space?

Holding the tension of long-term thinking and short-term pressure in civil society

Organisations will always face a range of financial, administrative and social pressures to revert to short-term thinking.

However, civil society organisations, especially those with a mission that have been around for hundreds of years, can be good at articulating the world as it should be. At their best, our institutions think in generational time, or even, as theologian and contemplative Richard Rhor, says, ‘deep time’. Long-term thinking can encourage us to build a caring relationship with the generations who follow-us, agitating us to change our behaviour now so that we take them into account. It can also encourage us to think about strategic changes we want to make to society, rather than simply focusing on tactical victories.

Organising for the long term is not an excuse to ignore today’s pain – as the great economist John Maynard-Keynes said, ‘in the long run, we are all dead’. Winning short-term change is a chance inspire people about bigger, future action and recognise people’s current suffering. Using organising to identify ‘winnable and worthwhile’ campaigns forces us to be specific and realistic.  When short-term victories are combined with ‘deep-time’, the outcome can be a strategy that seeks to win long-term, strategic change. And the truth is, that all significant social change takes a long time- civil rights in the USA was born out of slavery (over 400 years), the suffrage movement for women in the UK took almost 100 years, the struggle for affordable access to AIDS drugs worldwide took 20 years and the climate struggle has been waged since the 1960s.

How do we break the cycle of short-term thinking?

We need a deeper sense of ourselves embedded amongst a set of relationships beyond us, and a set of organisational practices that agitate us to think about the future.

Most often, when I think of my life, I think of the roughly 70-90 years I hope to be on the planet. One practice to extend that sense of self is to think of my life as part of the 200-year present’. I cared deeply about my late grandparents, who were born in the 1920s, and, divine-willing, I will meet my grandchildren, who will live until beyond 2100. The issues of the last 100 years, which shaped my grandparents’ lives, and the next 100, which will shape my grandchildren, directly matter to me. How then do I see myself as part of, and take responsibility for this stretch of 200 years, where the quarterly report doesn’t really matter?

At an institutional level, here are a few suggestions to begin addressing the ‘short-term’ – ‘long-term’ tension. It is hard, intentional work to organisational culture, but this process and the practices set out below could be helpful triggers to agitate towards action in the now, for change in the long-term.

Building towards an action plan for long-term strategy:

  1. Spend time creating a vision of the world as it should be – what world do we want to live in in 10-20 years’ time? Who can you talk to who shares this vision, or might, if you spoke with them about it?
  2. And then, using that vision, work out incremental steps to achieve it:
    1. What is a victory we are powerful enough to win now (in the next 6 months, often the time horizon of local community organising)?
    1. What are the milestones we want to win at the next election or quarterly report, and then the one after that, and the one after that, over 10-20 years?
    1. And then, what do we need to do, now, and over the next 5 years, to make that happen?

A few practices to keep the long-term alive in our every-day decision-making

The Long Term Project, has a number of suggested practices, to support us to keep the issues of generational time in the room when we make decisions. Here are 3 of them:

  1. Legacy: Regularly bringing ‘The Legacy Question’ of ‘What do you want your legacy for future generations to be?’ into our meetings, into relational meetings we have with colleagues, into team goals or project ambitions.
  2. The Empty Chair for Future Generations: this comes from the ‘Children’s Fire’, used by the indigenous peoples of North America. When the representatives would meet (the Chiefs), they would light a fire in the centre of the room to remember that the decisions they took should preserve the lives of the children 7 generations in the future. Today, many organisations, at important meetings, leave an empty chair for the present time’s children, and those as yet to be born. The chair of the meeting should recognise the empty chair and remind everyone present that their decisions need to include those not yet in the room.
  3. Acknowledging the future – This is just a chance, a the beginning of a meeting, to recognise future generations and those who have yet to be born. ‘It borrows from Australia’s Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country, where the country’s colonial past is recognised and respects are paid to the Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the land, the Aboriginal peoples.’ Here is one example: “Before we start, I’d like to acknowledge that the decisions we make in this room today may have implications into the future and far beyond the lifetime of this project, team or organisation. We make those decisions with that in mind.”

To build the future we hope our children will inherit, we can’t work according to the short-term.

One place to start is returning to the mission of our organisation and using these practices to build an organising plan. An organising plan that will win incremental victories in the short term, but victories which collectively add up a long-term systemic change.

That way, we can shape history, rather than it only shaping us.

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