StuartGore Warns of Perils of Short-term Thinking

By: Stuart Comstock-Gay In: 2010 Annual Conference

26 Apr 2010

“What were you thinking? Were you watching ‘Dancing With the Stars’?”

Is that the question our grandchildren will be asking us in 30 or 40 years—after climate change has continued to wreak havoc across the planet? Or will they be thanking us for our foresight and commitment to long-term thinking and vision? So asked former Vice President Al Gore in his keynote address to Council on Foundations annual conference attendees on Monday morning.

Gore issued a challenge and had advice for funders. While his greatest passion was reserved for a discussion of climate change, Gore sounded a broad theme about the collective challenge facing democratic capitalism and spoke of the need to think long-term. From a riff on the pre-Gutenberg era, through the Enlightenment, to the rise of the television age, Gore focused on long-term vision and the perils of focusing short-term.

His criticism included not just shortsighted energy and environmental policies, but a campaign finance system run amok, investment bankers who pursued short-term gain over long-term societal needs, and indeed about all of us who pick short-term quick fixes over the long-term. And we in philanthropy shouldn’t feel immune from the criticism. How many of us think short-term in our investments and demand that grantees show their results in an unreasonably brief period of time? How many of us haven’t really acted on the need to think and do differently when it comes to climate issues?

I don’t know if the role of philanthropy is more important than ever, as Gore suggests. I do know that we can play a critical role, and we must follow his advice to think long-term—in investments, grants, and policy. Will we be able to look back in 20 years and say that we really did something to address the big challenges of our day? Or will we be talking about “Dancing with the Stars”?

Stuart Comstock-Gay is the president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation.

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