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I'm a consultant and advisor  for social enterprises - using business to change the world.

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Impact Models - Digging Deeper Into Root Causes

Impact Models - Digging Deeper Into Root Causes

Root Cause Analysis.png

Now that you’ve defined your mission, you can dig deeper into your chosen problem.
This will help you create better solutions that other people haven’t thought of, or retry ideas which have been attempted but deemed impossible.
I’ll be your chosen problem is a bit like a tree – large, old and imposing.
There’s a visible component to the tree that’s being fed by a complex mess of roots beneath the surface.
While trimming a tree makes it smaller for a while, if you really want it gone you’ll need to dig up the roots.

Let’s start by describing the trunk of the tree: these are the simple aspects of the problem.
For example, if we look at a problem like homelessness we might see issues like people sleeping on busy streets, safety concerns, financial distress and a lack of support networks.
For the environment, we might see issues like plastics going into the ocean, fossil fuels being burned, and forests being destroyed.
What are the labels for the trunk of your tree?
What does the problem look like?

Next we have the branches, these are the consequences of the issues.
For homelessness, it might be the cost on hospitals and government programs (homeless people can cost a city up to AUD $1m in hidden costs), or it might be the increased rates of violence inflicted upon those who are sleeping rough, or the impact this has on their family members.
For the environment, this might be sea life dying from swallowing rubbish, animals becoming extinct, temperatures increasing and air quality decreasing.
What are the labels for the branches of your tree?
What are some of the flow-on effects?

Root Cause Roots.png

Finally, once we understand the trunk and the branches, we can look at the roots.
These are what feed the trunk and the branches, often out of sight.
For homelessness, one of the main roots is severe mental illness and not a lack of housing.
We don’t need more houses, we need to support people so that they can actually look after themselves.
Putting a person with severe mental illness into an empty house doesn’t tend to go well.
Other roots include domestic violence, unemployment, illegal drug use, prescription drug abuse, etc.
For the environment, main roots include customer indifference, corporate indifference, the desire to pick the cheapest solution at any turn, the availability of disposable plastics, lack of public awareness and the high number of misconceptions about sustainability.
What are the labels for your roots of your tree?
What are the underlying causes of the problem?

Which Root Do We Want To Address?
You might not like it, but you realistically have the energy to work on one root cause.
Maybe two if you’re in a fortunate position.
Not five.
Yes you can end up working on a few over the course of a decade, but rarely all at once.
These are entrenched problems for a reason.
If they were easy to solve, they’d already be solved.
What you’re doing is bringing all of your energy and creativity to viciously attack one root, refusing to settle until it’s gone.
It’s better to sever one root that to scuff up lots of roots.
This means you have to pick a root cause, and construct a mission around it.
For example, look at the lobbying on Coles and Woolworths to stop stocking single use bags.
Activists didn’t try and persuade the millions of shoppers to decline an easy yet harmful bag, but instead persuaded the decision makers within two companies to stop offering harmful single use plastic bags.
Despite its poor reception, this has saves millions and millions of bags from landfill all across the country.

Root Cause Picking A Root.png

Who Else Is Trying To Solve This Problem?
There’s a good chance that you’re not the only person who’s drawn this conclusion.
Therefore, you’ll likely find other groups who are tackling the same root cause.
How might you join forces?
How can your strengths complement theirs?
How might their strengths address your weaknesses?
Can you put your ego aside and create something wonderful as a group?
Failing that, can you save time, energy and money by learning from their experiences so far?

Now that you’ve picked a root cause, you get to design your plan of attack.
The best way to do this is to think about the actions you’ll take, what they create, and what happens as a result.
Here’s a neat template:

If we do x…

This will result in…

And lead to…

And then eventually lead to…

For example:

If we persuade Coles and Woolworths to ditch single use bags

This will results in 20 million fewer bags going into circulation each week

And lead to a massive drop in bags going into landfill

And eventually lead to fewer single use bags being created


If we set up a ratings system between hosts and guests

This will results in mutual accountability for both parties

And lead to both parties treating each other with respect

And then eventually lead to a reduction in tenancy disputes

What does it look like if it works?
This can be a tricky question at first; what does success look like?
How will you know that change is occurring?
How will you quantify “enough”?
How will you know when you’re there?

e.g. if you’re designing a program to make people more culturally aware, how will you know that they’ve taken your message to heart?
What outward details reflect a change of attitude?
How do you know that it’s been a great success, rather than passable? 

Mapping Root Cause.png

How will we measure our contribution?
Once you know how to measure the change within a system, how will you work out which part you were responsible for?
With so many factors at play, when can you genuinely take credit for an improvement?
Before you modestly argue that you don’t expect or need credit, you sort of do when it comes to soliciting for sales, donations, partnerships, grants and attention.
If you can’t prove that your actions created positive change, why would you receive more funding and support in the future?
You need a metric of some sort, and while you don’t have to lock it in now it’s worth thinking about.
What do your peers tend to use?
What do people in different industries use?
How will you know deep down in your gut that it’s working?

Is our solution good enough?
This is an ugly question, but it’s so valuable to think about this today.
If you need a better solution, let’s start planning right now.
We can look at inspirational examples from other groups, as well as cautionary tales.
Since you’ve picked a worthy problem, it deserves a worthy solution, one that’s well thought out and which has been validated in the real world. 

Case Study – Mulago and the cookstoves
Kevin Starr from Mulago Foundation has a fascinating story about one of their programs in Africa.
Cookstoves are a big issue in the developing world, due to the fumes they emit and their negative health effects.
A solution to this issue is Inyenyeri cookstoves, which use a healthier fuel and which aren’t harmful to the household.
Mulago saw their mission was to distribute the new stoves, thereby making the old ones redundant.
Of course, what actually happened was that each household now had the benefit of two cookstoves, still breathing in the same amount of emissions as before.
It turns out, the key step in the process wasn’t giving the new stove, it was in taking the old one away.
Without that step, cooking is easier but still just as harmful as before.

Do Our Beneficiaries Actually Care?

Does our beneficiary care about those outcomes?
This is a valuable checkpoint; who cares about your outcomes – you or the beneficiary?
Is it possible that your beneficiaries care about something different?
You see this with well-meaning missions trips and people visiting their sponsor children in developing countries.
We tell ourselves stories about “the value of connection” and the value of your unskilled labour, but our hosts probably have a different opinion.
What they actually need is money.
What they actually need is improved educational programs, or wifi.
You might care about helping construct a building, it’s satisfying volunteer work, but if given the choice between your labour for a week or US$200, which do you think you beneficiaries will pick?
TOMS shoes were questioned for their model of giving away shoes – a lovely story, but did their beneficiaries genuinely need shoes rather than other forms of financial support?
That led TOMS to completely change their impact model, and they continue to be an interesting case study.

My suggestion is to now draw out your tree diagram, assess your solution honestly, and check-in with your peers and your beneficiaries.
This may mean changing your idea, which is an excellent development.
It’s better to change your mind now, rather than build something well publicised that doesn’t actually work.

Up next, we’re looking at common social enterprise impact models…

Dear Katia

Dear Katia

Impact Models - Drafting Your Recipe For Change

Impact Models - Drafting Your Recipe For Change