Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Moving Upstream to Root Causes

In my last post, I referenced When Good Is Not Good Enough, a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. This article makes the point that the nonprofit sector needs to shift attention from modest goals that provide short-term relief to bold goals that tackle root causes. The dilemma is captured in the essay "A Contemporary Fable" which I included in my post. "A Contemporary Fable" has been around for a long time and reflects the same challenge to our work as a sector: Are we getting to root causes or are we inadvertently making it easier for unjust and mal-functioning systems to remain unchallenged and unchanged? As a sector, are we about social change or social control?

Here is the link to my earlier post: http://tinyurl.com/ox88hp8.  The following question was posed in response to this post: "How do you propose that a nonprofit fund such a preventive project? Many, if not most, have just enough resources to provide day-to-day services."

A few thoughts to get us started: Let’s begin with the good news. Today there are more and more donors and funders, deeply dissatisfied with our collective failure to solve a range of problems, who are looking for new approaches that get to the root causes of those problems. They want help "getting upstream".

The not-so-good news: Many nonprofits are simply not organized or positioned to work upstream. They have neither the leadership vision nor the revenue base to support such efforts. In some cases they are saddled with legacy programs that make it very difficult to consider anything different from what they've always done. Added to this, the words "social change" are used so loosely today and applied to so many things, that it becomes very easy to mistake well-intentioned activity for purposeful social change, as in "changing and transforming underlying systems" that give rise to so many problems facing our communities.

Not that every nonprofit needs to be working upstream. In fact, there are so many people being deeply hurt by the way our social and economic systems are organized, that some of the nonprofit sector needs to be working "downstream". Countless children who are hungry right now, recently returned vets who are unemployed and homeless right now, young people languishing in failing schools right now – all of these and so many others need help right now.

But the problem is that not enough of the nonprofit sector is working at the deeper systems level, addressing the root causes. So, for nonprofits that want to move upstream, how does that journey begin?

I think it starts with asking ourselves a few questions: What problem are we trying to address with the programs and services we currently offer? What is our vision of intended future impact on the problem -– What are the changes we seek to create and at what level? Do we understand the root causes of the problem? Do we see our role as primarily addressing the symptoms or do we want to address the deeper causes? Are we interested in going deeper – in identifying the root causes? Do we have board understanding and support for such an approach? Do we have a donor base that is supportive of such efforts? (Or are we dependent on donors who don’t want us to rock the boat?) If the answer is “yes” to any of these initial questions, what are we prepared to do to come to a deeper understanding of those causal factors and, based on this understanding, to then identify/ uncover/ design promising programs, services and initiatives that will address those root causes? In many cases such initiatives will involve our organization in nonpartisan advocacy and public policy work allowable by law – in addition to direct services.

Some more good news: there are many resources for analyzing problems in terms of root causes. The world of systems thinking offers us many tools and techniques. Also, in the last several years, there has been a proliferation of resources for developing theories of change for our work. A theory of change has been defined as a graphical depiction of the strategies that an organization plans to undertake to achieve its intended impact in alignment with its mission. All of these tools provide opportunities to analyze the problems we face at a deeper level. Often, we discover the underlying systems that give rise to the problems and symptoms we encounter in our everyday lives on a daily basis.

Armed with an understanding of root causes and promising approaches to address them, we can begin to consider other roles our nonprofit can play: We can launch new initiatives that increase our mission impact further upstream. Or we can enter into new partnerships and alliances with organizations that are already tackling the problem at its root. In some cases, we can redesign programs and services we currently offer in order to have greater impact at a deeper systems level. Or we may decide to divest of some programs and services so that we can free up resources and focus our future efforts to advance our mission. We might even end up changing our mission!

We are now in a stronger position to develop ways to communicate our intent and resolve to others: we can search for the donors and funders that that are looking for the new approaches to seemingly intractable problems. We also can also look for partner organizations that have an interest in tackling the problem at the deeper systems level. They’re out there. We have to find them and develop relationships with them.

There is so much more to say. What are others doing to move upstream? What problems and successes have you experienced? What have you learned?