Are We Making Enough of a Difference?

Back in 2011, Root Cause—the organization I founded, began a major project with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA). If you’re not familiar, CBMA is the only national membership network solely committed to improving the life outcomes of Black men and boys, a systemic challenge that I hope all of us can agree deserves continuous attention if we are to see sustained results.

Part of that work involved building a “Life Outcomes Dashboard” that could be used to communicate and compare life outcomes in cities across the country across several common indicators such as reading proficiency and high school graduation rates. It was a useful tool with which to paint a picture of the current state of things. It also made me begin to see things differently. When I looked at some of the initial data, I was frankly horrified. For instance, we had data for one city showing that a mere 5 percent of Black boys entering 4th grade could read at the expected level! More alarming was that the number had not changed over a 10-year period.

Seeing those initial data was a trigger for me to look more deeply at these kinds of indicators geographically, by race, and by gender. It turned out to be emblematic of what was happening—or not happening—in city after city. And because of what I found, I began to ask myself whether the work we were doing was actually contributing towards more lives improving for any of these indicators. Were we making enough of difference?

Sure, I was confident we were genuinely helping the organizations with which we worked to build their capacity to effect change, and I knew there was no question that our projects contributed to making positive changes in the lives of individuals—but what about moving the dial in the aggregate? What about more boys entering 4th grade equipped to succeed, not just a particular boy? What would it take to get to 10%? Or 20%? Or even 50%? How could we create population-level change?

As I began to wrestle with this question, I found myself wondering about how I had spent my time leading Root Cause over all those years. If your work is anything like mine, this description will ring true. Sometimes I felt as though I was running on a hamster wheel. My primary activity was to figure out where the next grant or contract might come from and how to get it, which meant spending lots of time promoting us in ways that were very specific to that objective. I also paid considerable attention to determining the next paper to publish or figuring out the conferences we ought to be at and the opportunities for speaking engagements we ought to pursue—which I now recognize translated into a focus on creating “connections” that at times were actually highly disconnected from the day-to-day lived experiences of many people and what I now believe we are supposed to be doing—improving more people’s lives. All this was done in the name of sustaining operations and staff and promoting “our” point of view—that is, that the “solutions” we were offering were the ones that would “solve social problems” and generate greater “social impact.”

I began to feel more and more as if our work was simply adding bricks in the wall of what might be called the “nonprofit industrial complex.” This compelled me to take a step back, to take some time to reimagine Root Cause and our ultimate purpose.

Maybe some of you reading this have experienced that same sort of feeling?

Admittedly, this is a tough place to find myself, 15 years after founding an organization like Root Cause. After all, my organization exists to do good, and I find myself continuing to wonder whether the resources we’re using and the activities in which we’re engaged are being allocated in the best way to translate into tangible and worthwhile differences in people’s lives.

Make no mistake: I am incredibly proud of the work of Root Cause and our many partners over the years. I also am in awe every day of the people I meet who are so passionately committed to helping people, particularly given the long hours, limited resources, and comparatively low level of pay—be they school teachers, nonprofit staff, social workers, folks working in public agencies, foundation program officers … or however they serve society to make people’s lives better. But, at the same time, I believe nonprofits, philanthropy, and government should demand more from ourselves and certainly I am committed to demanding more from Root Cause and myself.

I now have a much sharper picture of what our overall objectives must be—more people achieving success from healthy birth, to a quality education, to a well-paying job, and to healthy and secure aging. Everything nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do must focus on these.

But I am less clear about how nonprofits, philanthropy, and government get there. I believe that posing some of my questions in public will be the best way to hear some ideas for new and different answers to these questions—ones that concern all of us in the “business” of moving people along pathways of success and thus improving their lives. I hope to practice and promote a culture of inquiry.

So, here in my blog, I’m going to think through these questions publicly and explore what it means for us to build on the successes we have had and do things that will ultimately lead to the kinds of population-level change that seems to be missing in the results of our work—and that our country so desperately needs.

It would be great if you, the readers, join me in a conversation—one based on mutual trust and a common purpose.

To help move that conversation along, my next blog post will review one of our Root Cause projects in which—despite “success”—we just didn’t see the kinds of results I am now convinced nonprofits, philanthropy, and government must be shooting for, explicitly.

And I’ll end this blog with a song—as I will do from time to time, along this journey, in future posts. Music is a big part of my life. It brings people together. The songs I share will, I hope, inspire you, get you to think, and maybe even get you to dance!


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6 thoughts on “Are We Making Enough of a Difference?

  1. glynn says:

    I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty Andrew I agree its critical for us to be reflective and to understand we all have an effective and impactful role to play in getting to the root of the current ‘crazy’ and an equally important role in offering an alternative that levels the weight of history while also providing the possibility of a wiser and healthier way of existing individually and collectively – looking forward to see where your inquiry leads and the possibility of overlap of my journey – Glynn


  2. lorenwalker says:

    I appreciate the emphasis on product over process. Simply playing the game well should not be an end unto itself. However, I also think that innovation (whether technical or social) requires an entrepreneurial approach, which necessarily includes some percentage of failure. So, I say: aim for results, make data-driven decisions, and course-correct with humility. Just don’t quit. And, dance!


  3. JohnR says:

    I agree with you that living with the data of this work (quantitative and lived experience) as much as we do can be overwhelming. The problems they uncover – racism and inequity in particular – just seem intractable and cause us to question whether they will ever give way. However the work that you do, helping others who make this same discovery press on with a set of tools that help them get better is vitally important. It may be that the highest and best use of Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) is to unlock Continuous Equity Improvement (CEI).

    I look forward to more of your reflections


  4. kmj93 says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. This blog post resonated with my experience. In my work, I was able to make amazing changes in individuals’ lives through fitness programs designed for special populations. And I believe this is incredibly important. But I had the same question as Andrew, how do we expand good work to make it systemic and truly move the needle for healthy aging from birth to natural death? It is complex and challenging, but I think essential to work towards a goal of an equitable world. I am looking forward towards more blog posts on this subject.


  5. dalrymtw says:

    Even if scaled, I worry that our individual impacts aren’t strong enough to effect meaningful, durable change that amounts to real opportunity. We rely on “gold-standard” strategies that tend to have marginal effects that often aren’t measured long-term. Our sector’s efforts also tend to focus on symptoms more than root causes, overlooking easier opportunities to prevent gaps and problems from ever materializing. And I think our individual passion, commitment, and even our optimism lead us to act alone. I fall into each of these traps, and on most days. To me, your “enough?” question demands that we be humbled by the challenge, think long-term, act early, and combine our efforts because it takes more than any one person, strategy, or even community to create lasting opportunity.


    1. Andrew Wolk says:

      I could not agree more – it’s hard for me too to keep focus on the right things! The rise of the social entrepreneur has clouded our understanding that these are complex challenges that will take complex strategies implemented with patience and humility to see population level change while reducing disparities and there are no silver bullets, but steadfast commitment.


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