Always look at root causes

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Is your contribution to the world treating a symptom or curing a disease?

There are so many important and urgent causes out there. It seems like every week there’s a new urgent need to respond to. Many of them are legitimately urgent. At a certain point, though, you have to wonder if putting out all these fires is enough or if we should be asking where these fires are coming from in the first place.

Putting out scattered fires is often what the world of nonprofits and social causes can feel like. Whenever a topic is trending, it can send large amounts of interests or donations to organizations that have immediate responses in place. This response is important, but it often doesn’t address the underlying issues.

For example, if a hurricane strikes Haiti, much attention would be drawn towards relief efforts to clean up and provide immediate aid. But that in and of itself wouldn’t address the country’s vulnerability or the environmental conditions that make it prone to disaster.

Or maybe a devastating photograph from a civil war on the other side of the world starts appearing online and the world is alarmed into compassion. Efforts to provide immediate aid are good, but they are different from the long term work needed to build peace in the area.

My career in the nonprofit world thus far has moved me from simply being drawn to the most alarming stories to moving towards organizations with long term plans to empower people, reduce vulnerability, and commit to the long term work needed to create lasting change.

It seems many others are also slowly waking up to the importance of addressing root causes rather than being content with band aid solutions. At the same time, so much good could be done if this value was more widespread. Communicating the importance of root causes continues to become even more important.

How to communicate going after root causes.

This isn’t to downplay the importance of immediate responses. In the moments just after a major disaster, the arrival of aid can make the difference between life or death for thousands. These sorts of solutions absolutely have their place.

But working towards root causes means working towards a world where that sort of calamity will never happen again. Or at least it wouldn’t devastate people in the way that it has in the past. 

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Organizations that do work that addresses root causes should take the time to make sure their audience really understands why this is important and what a difference it makes. Of course, in order to communicate this well, the organization must understand it well internally.

Often, it’s helpful to start with the image, story, or statistic that most people would immediately find jarring and work your way backwards. Observe what’s happening and ask why. Then ask why that cause is happening. And keep going.

Sometimes it helps to take this exercise very literally. Write out causes and effects and draw arrows. This might not be the most nuanced depiction of an issue, but it will help you see more clearly how one thing leads to another.

Roots are a great metaphor; causes are intertwined and connected.

At some point, that exercise might start to get messy. You’ll discover that one cause is also an effect and one cause is also an effect. When it feels like you’ve arrived at a vicious cycle, it’s a good sign that you’ve found some roots.

Just like roots in the natural world, social, political, and environmental problems are all connected and intertwined. For example, environmental issues are one of the leading causes of poverty around the world. But, living in poverty also leads to a surge in practices that ultimately destroy the environment.

This cycle of root causes is the one I work with every day at Plant With Purpose. It’s also one I cover extensively on the first episode of my podcast Grassroots. It’s called The Roots of Everything.

I spend time talking with Lucy McCray from The Freedom Story about how environmental issues and poverty make people vulnerable to the challenge of human trafficking and exploitation. I talk to a marine biologist from Mozambique, Abdul Ada about how the environment will determine how people recover financially from the effects of Cyclone Idai. I also explore the economic-environmental connection in the United States with Appalachian Voices.

If you want an example of some people who’ve centered their work around the value of root causes, I recommend downloading the podcast and giving it a listen. Each interview contains insights about exactly this topic.

Take a second to imagine the difference in the world that would result from people being as committed to lasting solutions as they are to the idea of quick fixes. Lasting change requires addressing problems at their roots.

Is your work addressing a long term cause? If so, are you communicating this clearly? Look for ways to integrate your commitment to lasting change into your messaging. The more people see this emphasized, the more they’ll be reminded: it matters.


Philippe Lazaro