The longer I stay in the nonprofit sector, the more I realize that many debates come in cycles.

For example, the overhead debate is rearing its head again, prompted by a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta then by Charity Navigator rethinking how it measures effectiveness. However, debates about overhead always seem to arise whenever a list along the lines of “America’s highest paid nonprofit leaders!” or some other scandal involving pay occurs.

What’s caught my eye recently is the conversation around how nonprofits address social problems.

I am simplifying the conversation but here it is in a nutshell: Too many nonprofits are focused on short-term problem solving (e.g. giving food to the hungry) instead of long-term problem solving (e.g. addressing the root cause of hunger).

Now, I would argue that this focus is not just the result of shortsighted nonprofit leaders. Long-term problem solving requires long-term funding and, in my mind, is inherently political. Neither of these is appealing to many supporters who might want nonprofits to keep their heads down and costs low.

That being said, I advocate long-term thinking for another reason: it encourages us to see the people we serve in a more holistic, human way.

I’ve been chewing on how short-term problem solving can be dangerously reductionist. We define people by what they lack; specifically by what they lack in a way that’s easy to fill. Hungry people lack food, so let’s feed them. Homeless people lack housing, so let’s house them. (And by easy, I mean the slot to fill is pretty straight forward. I know it takes an enormous amount of time, money, and energy to secure these items.) Our relationships are transactional, hierarchical, and our definition of success shallow. This is necessary work—after all, people do need to eat—but it’s limited in its impact and it perpetuates a certain kind of change, one rooted in “saving” people.

But long-term problem solving encourages broader thinking. Instead of just asking, “How can we feed the hungry?” we also ask “Why are people hungry?” Instead of just asking, “How can we provide more services?” we also ask, “What kind of services do people want and need and why?” To me, it’s impossible to answer the latter questions without conversing with people that we serve. We take ourselves out of the equation for a moment and focus on the stories and needs that emerge. And it can be humbling as we realize we might not have the answers, can’t do the work alone, and need to think in terms of partnerships and power shifts in the communities where we work.

It can also be frightening and overwhelming which is why some organizations might not want to do it.

Of course, one has to be deliberate about getting out of the way and understanding that a community might have a radically different idea of what it needs than what you envision and may not need you at all. But I find we can’t even get there if we are focused on one short-term solution.

What do you all think of the long-term vs. short-term debate?

Photo credit: Lapatia, Shutterstock