“Patience is a virtue,” my mother frequently chided her children, the five of us no doubt insisting that we needed something right now – a new bicycle, a snack or a ride to a friend’s house. As a kid, I always wondered what she meant. We all knew that patience was on the list of officially sanctioned virtues, so what was the point of reminding us? I thought she was saying, “Patience is a good thing.”
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that it suddenly struck me; what she really meant was, “patience is one of the virtues you should cultivate in yourself.” And not for the first or last time, I wondered if I was perhaps an exceptionally slow learner.
Virtues have been on my mind a lot lately, since I feel that the conversation about “values,” both personal and organizational, has become stale and unproductive. Because organizations seeking to define themselves tend to pick values by committee, the values selected are, while undeniably worthy, mostly meaningless in everyday life. In other words, they don’t serve as a useful working guide for staff and board. Values seem to exist in some exterior void, behind glass, like a piece of wall art that nobody notices anymore.
Virtues, on the other hand, are easily accessible, there to be nurtured and encouraged. They only exist in active practice.
So what would it mean for an organization (nonprofit or for-profit) to say that it is patient? Think about this: Organizations are created to solve problems. Important problems cannot be solved in a year, or even five or ten. Being patient is the explicit acknowledgement of this reality.
A patient organization, knowing that it needed a long time to make any headway in solving the world’s problems, would think of project cycles in ten-year increments at least. Programs would be set up, and program partners selected, on the basis of long-term commitments to solving difficult problems, instead of short-term projects that barely scratch the surface. It’s the difference between a merely incremental approach (e.g., helping one more child get an education, or one more rural village get a handpump) and truly catalytic change.
Catalytic change comes when an intervention fundamentally alters the way a system responds (hopefully for the better). For example, a low-performing school system that is failing the community’s low-income children transforms into one with highly motivated teachers and good graduation rates even for those children.
In a patient organization, the leaders would evaluate the organization’s capacity based on whether it had the necessary systems, staff and cash reserves to keep the programs running and the lights on for the long term to achieve catalytic change. Senior staff members would focus their attention on training and developing newer staff members for the future, creating a culture of continuous learning and development. All staff members would seek opportunities to improve their skills and intellectual capital, secure in knowing that their ability to be successful is measured in years, not months. Mothers and fathers could take time off for childbirth, and the organization would celebrate parental leave, confident that the staff member would return and that having children adds to the maturity and reliability of staff. The top leaders would make public commitments to stay in it for the long haul, creating a sense of security and inspiring other staff to make similar commitments.
Let’s talk frankly–there’s not much you can get done in just a year or two. Short-termers are largely a waste of resources. In both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds, senior staff tenure is astonishingly short; I think the average for a Chief Development Officer or Chief Marketing Officer is around twelve months. Twelve months! You spend the first six months just learning the basics of the job.
This is exacerbated, at least in the nonprofit world, by the short attention span of donors, who often have trouble thinking about programs that last more than two or three years. What a different conversation it would be, don’t you think, to sit down with a donor and explain that ten years is the minimum amount of time it would take to get traction on the problem at hand, and that it would be irresponsible to launch something knowing that you were going to wind it up just as it got going?
Imagine you are a child in a school and you win a scholarship that covers school fees, books and supplies every year. But the agency that gave you the scholarship will only support you for three years; after that you’re on your own. I guess that makes you “sustainable,” but in my personal dictionary that’s defined as “sorry, we don’t feel like helping you anymore.”
In my view, you take on a moral obligation when you provide something as meaningful as a scholarship; you should at least have the decency to carry it to some sort of conclusion – graduation from high school or college, for example. This is the real, deep meaning of patience – the willingness to commit to a long-term engagement in order to have a profound impact. It doesn’t just mean being able to sit around quietly waiting for something good to happen.
Patience is the wisdom to make long-term investments in finding solutions. Like teaching your kids the same lesson over and over and over again. I may be a slow learner, but having three children has taught me that much.