• Laura WP

Dear Jeff Bezos: Please Don't Think Short Term

This post originally appeared on medium.com/@laurawp on June 15, 2017.

Earlier today, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos tweeted that he was rethinking his philanthropy strategy and was looking for some crowdsourced input.

First of all, kind of a cool use of your network of followers. Hopefully some compelling responses will rise to the top and influence your thinking. And since you asked…

Because I lead a nonprofit, I spend a lot of my time thinking about what role nonprofits and philanthropy need to play in solving our world’s most pressing challenges. For my part, I focus on racial and economic justice; I lead a nonprofit called Code2040 that leverages the tech sector to close the racial wealth gap in America. Code2040 is a systems change organization. We’re looking to fundamentally rewire the American economy so that it works for everyone. (More on Code2040’s accomplishments here and on our approach here.)

Systems change work is not BETTER than symptoms amelioration work (what is more traditionally thought of as “charity”). But it is different. Symptoms amelioration work — like treating an illness — is valuable. You will save real people from real suffering in real time. But if you are unhappy with the symptoms you are seeing, with the number of people suffering, then it is systems change work that is necessary — find the cause and find a cure andyou will prevent the suffering of an untold number and create conditions in which those who are currently surviving based on handouts can instead thrive based on self-determination.

We need both types of work. So what, Jeff Bezos, should YOU focus on? I would argue that systems change work requires a type of deep, patient capital investment that only those with the deepest pockets can provide. Can Code2040 show year-over-year results from our direct service work with Black and Latinx students? Of course. But we’re aiming to close the racial wealth gap in America by the year 2040. And that goes far beyond direct service and smiling faces that can be put onto postcards (although our community is very photogenic). That’s the longterm of work of changing the way companies view and value talent. Of deliberately building out networks that will carry formerly isolated individuals into the center of our economy. Of supporting the ideas and dreams of entrepreneurs, knowing that today’s companies may not be terribly diverse but in ten years a new set of companies will be leading the economy and they haven’t been created yet.

Who are the people who are going to sign on to a 20+ year journey to end economic disenfranchisement for black and brown communities in America? Not many of the donors giving $25, $50, or $500 per year are thinking that longterm because, let’s be real, that’s not how long a donation like that lasts.Those are the donors whose hearts sing when they hear their donation has paid for X number of meals, or Y backpacks of school supplies. We, the normals, can afford those levels of donations; we can do the symptoms amelioration work and, collectively, we are much more likely to lean in to it.

Donors who are giving in the $1M, $5M, $10M range are thinking longterm. Theirs is not a gift but an investment in a different future, not for an individual or for a day, but for a society, an economy, a country, a climate, a world.Adding zeros means thinking differently — an investment is not incremental, but transformative. There is so much opportunity in that type of long term thinking.

I can understand feeling tired of exercising that part of your brain, Jeff Bezos. It’s exhausting to think about the magnitude of the problems we face, the depth of the entrenchment of the systems that perpetuate them, the humility and ability to release our attachment to ideas and assumptions that is required to do the hard work. I can understand the desire to take your vast wealth and to apply it to the here and now. After all, many people would be grateful.

But there are not many Jeff Bezoses out there. There are not many people who thrive in the realm of long-term, systems-changing, visionary thought. There are not many people who can do that and who have the resources available to support those of us who are re-envisioning the way our systems work for long term health and prosperity for all.

So, I say: stay in the realm of the long term. Pull the levers today that propel us into a different future tomorrow. You are, in many ways, uniquely positioned. You have an opportunity that I don’t want you to shy away from. Selfishly. Not selfishly for Code2040, but selfishly for humanity — for all of us. In a world that rewards short term actions we need the courage of long term thought from those who live in the rarefied air where typical incentive structures lose their power. That’s you.

(Though back to that selfish thing, let’s be clear, if you’re interested in Code2040, call me.)

A final thought. You can probably tell I feel strongly here. I don’t want you to shy away from the long term, systems change work. But to be honest, Jeff Bezos, if after you read all those tweets you’re still feeling torn, come up with a ratio that feels good and go ahead and give a little to the here and now, too. My guess is you have enough to do both.

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