Ending the Problem

This may sound a little bit pessimistic so if I upset you with this post, please leave a comment or send me an email. This is a bit of a follow-up post to yesterday’s Endowment Giving post.

It bothers me when we talk about “ending poverty” or “ending hunger”. I think these are great things to aim for and to hope for but aren’t we biting off more than we can chew? We have had poverty and hunger since the beginning of time. People do not go hungry because we are unable to grow enough food but because of the way food is distributed and the systems in place that distribute that food. Something will have to change about the human condition that would really allow those with many to give it up for the sake of those with few.

So should our organizations really spend valuable resources on solving an unsolvable problem? It is an incredible marketing message but wouldn’t it be more practical to ask what we could do to have a lasting and permanent impact on these problems, to provide higher quality and lower cost food to those that currently live in our communities? How can we provide emergency assistance that addresses the needs of the poorest in our community, and what can we do to improve the overall quality of life? Aren’t these questions that we can actually answer that would have a tangible and lasting effect on our communities and in our world?

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5 Responses to Ending the Problem

  1. I completely agree. I had this exact conversation with colleagues yesterday.

  2. Dan Smith says:

    Jason,
    As sad as it is, I agree with you. I think we should pick our battles a little better. However, some people might have said once that cystic fibrosis was a lost cause, so why raise money for research? Well, we’ve gone from an average lifespan of 5 years to 37. Of course, we hope for a cure someday.
    Anyway, it’s tough, and of course I’d love for everyone to join our team, but I just know that if I were being told that I needed to drop our program because we can’t really cure it, I’d be devastated.

    Dan

  3. Janice Chan says:

    I agree that the likelihood that we are ever going to eradicate hunger or poverty approaches zero. However, I tend to take these calls to end a problem the same way as striving for perfection. No one and nothing is ever perfect. But if you strive for perfection, you can end up with something pretty good. Like that saying in karate that if you want to break the board with your hand, you have to hit through the board. And though there are plenty of dreamers, many organizations working to end poverty etc. are working on making progress in a practical manner.

    However, I get the sense that your (and many people’s) real sense of frustration comes from those dreamers who are very much all or nothing, and how that can be counterproductive (as exemplified by all the fighting over the recent health care legislation). And you’re right, there will always be people in poverty or going hungry because life is unpredictable and extremely unfair. There will always be natural disasters, manmade disasters, etc. We will always need both short term treatments for the unpreventable and long term solutions so that we can prevent the suffering we are able to prevent. As long as you keep everything in perspective (as in, this small change means X more people who were hungry yesterday now have food vs. we were unable to end hunger), then I think we’re on the right track.

  4. Jason Dick says:

    Great comments. Janice I agree that there is something appealing about the big hairy audacious goals. I feel like that is the kind of message that feeds a good vision for an organization. But it seems that many organizations lean so heavily on this kind of messaging that specific tangible or attainable goals can get lost.

    What can our organizations do to live in both worlds? It would be great to have an inspiring vision that is being accomplished in tangible measurable ways.

    Dan I think you make a really great point about what we deem as a lost cause. I think it’s great that donors have so many different passions. And, it is important that our organizations find relevant ways to talk about what we stand for.

  5. John Risner says:

    In a Board meeting for our foundation (which is focused on NF-a genetic disorder), several years one of the members remarked how “we were all there to cure NF”. It took some of us aback when our medical affairs chairman commented, “well really not, as it is unlikely to be cured in our lifetime. There has never been a genetic disorder that has been cured”.
    This stimulated a very healthy discussion of “cure”, vs. “treat” vs. “End”.

    The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is one org we benchmark ourselves against regularly, and Dan’s comments are spot on. They have not yet “cured” CF, but the advances they have made in treating it are remarkable. They have made a huge difference in the both the quality and quantity of life for people with CF. Maybe they will never cure it, but at their rate of progress, in 40 years CF may be equivalent to brochitis.
    The end of our discussion was that while realistically our goal is find safe and effective treatments for NF, we are comfortable using “cure” and “end” as shorthand words to convey our mission. Like CF, we may not cure it for many years, but in aspiring to that we will make a huge difference in the lives of those with NF.
    On point to the original post, I think poverty and hunger, while closely correlated, can be separated. As Jason noted, hunger is a logistical problem. At worst we should be able to make it a transient (flood, earthquake etc.) condition.

    And while the poor will be with you always, the goal of ending it is a noble one, and for marketing purposes captures the essence of the mission.
    Interesting post and thread!
    John

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