Are We Making the Right Kind of Difference?

Andrew Wolk
Mar 18, 2019

In my last blog post, I described how I have begun to ask myself whether the work we do is actually making enough of a difference to realize population-level change. For me and for our work at Root Cause, that requires making the right kind of difference in individuals lives. Finding the answer has required exploring the challenges I see posed by the explosive growth in our sector in the last 20+ years, a period during which business people myself included began to contribute to all this, bringing expertise from that sector to help raise money and grow the reach of organizations (what we call scale in our sector).

During what has been the rise of social entrepreneurship, a time of exponential growth in nonprofits beginning in the 1990s (at least one report was that more than 100 new nonprofits are being formed every day in the United States), one thing that cannot escape notice is how some social entrepreneurs have been granted well-deserved rock-star status. Geoffrey Canada is a good example. President of the Harlem Children’s Zone, he transformed a New York City anti-poverty organization into what today focuses on the academic careers of youth in a 97-block area of one of that city’s poorest neighborhoods and that spurred a nationwide movement. Big-time magazine profiles, a book, and becoming one U.S. News and World Reports Americas Best Leaders followed. That ascendancy of his status has helped shine a light on what our sector does, is capable of, and the pressing needs he has confronted well and nonprofits, philanthropy, and government seek to fulfill.

Yet, as the business and social sectors increasingly intersected, an underlying tension revealed itself to me more and more as we all pursued improving lives: scale versus life outcomes.

As I see it, scale won and that is part of why nonprofits, philanthropy, and government has gotten distracted from the core reasons for our work in the first place: to make the right kind of sustained difference in peoples lives that can ultimately lead to population-level change.

I think an example of work we did over a number of years will illustrate the point I want to make.

Some years back, Root Cause began working with uAspire, an organization based in Boston that has a very focused and important mission: ensuring that all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to and through college. At that time, uAspire’s target population was high school seniors in Boston.

Our work with uAspire began through the Social Innovation Forum, a program I launched (in partnership with New Profit, The Boston Foundation, and others) when I first started Root Cause. It was a way to build off of in a different context some of what I was seeing in the work of the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF), which had begun as an informal group to help early-stage entrepreneurs pitch and promote technology innovations and has since gone worldwide. Our initial engagement with uAspire aimed at growing the organization’s reach (what our sector calls “scale”): we packaged the organization so it could do more rigorous storytelling that would make it better at raising money. One deliverable was a prospectus beautifully designed and printed with lots of fancy business school terms, the model for the groups work, and some metrics for success. We created fancy PowerPoint slides based on that prospectus. And we supported uAspire’s CEO so he could use those slides to deliver professional-level presentations.

A couple of years later, we did another project for uAspire also about scale focused on whether the group’s work could be replicated in other cities. In our sector, this kind of replication project has become classic work, something we’ve done dozens of times for others. You take an owner-operated model the business term for it that’s working well in one place and explore how it can be replicated elsewhere. In this case, uAspire was thinking about replicating in other cities.

More often than not, replication is the ultimate measure of success for social entrepreneurs.

Root Cause explored that option with uAspire but also presented some alternatives for scaling. You don’t necessarily need to set up uAspire per se in other cities, we explained. We raised other ways the organization could spread its model for example, by training others in those cities to do the same work. Then we helped the leadership get the board of directors, who were mostly business professionals, to see the full range of options. Put in business terms and we used that very terminology we helped uAspire think about how to expand and explore markets that might be ripe for expansion.

At the end of the day, we achieved our contractual obligation and helped uAspire achieve the success it had identified. Today, the organization has expanded to other cities in Massachusetts, as well as to the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. It serves eight times the number of students it did a decade ago, and through its training work indirectly reaches 150 times more!

When I described this experience to someone the other day that doesn’t work in our field, he said it sounded like straight-up strategy management consulting. He was right however, that’s never how I wanted our work to be ultimately perceived.

The uAspire work and countless other engagements like it have brought me to the question of whether nonprofits, philanthropy, and government are making the right kind of difference.

I began to see that the focus on scale and a better way of selling uAspire to donors had taken Root Cause further and further away from how to provide support towards what was I have always strived to be at the heart of our own work contributing toward tangible, sustainable differences in peoples lives.

What we did to help uAspire scale are noble achievements, and in no way do I wish to diminish the great work uAspire has done and others in our space overall to build stronger programs and organizations. But the big question of making the right kind of difference begged more questions. Is college even right for every kid and family? What if a family wasn’t prepared to take on debt? What if the student wasn’t prepared to succeed in college? What if it just leads to dropping out quickly with a still outstanding loan as a new burden in an already very difficult life? And even if the student does make it through, what opportunities are there beyond graduation? Plus, you don’t need to look further than a recent series of Boston Globe articles to know that high school students have other challenges besides getting into college and paying for it.

If it were your kid involved here, wouldn’t every one of these questions be on the table?

I’ve come to the conclusion that we jargoned and modeled a way for uAspire to grow that was largely detached from the outcomes all of us would want for our own children.

We had brought to uAspire some of the strength and professional rigor of the private sector when it comes to making decisions and executing its work, while at the same time applying a bunch of terminologies, models, and tools that almost immediately clouded us from what should be the ultimate purpose of why we were doing any of it in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: Root Cause and our colleagues in this sector have done great work and built organizations that can serve amazing, positive, and even transformative purposes. And uAspire has made changes most notably in using the evidence-based analysis to combat some of the downsides I’m noting here. But the question about making the right and population-level difference persist.

uAspire counted on us to help guide the organizations scaling efforts, and while we executed on our contract I believe Root Cause fell short precisely because of the fundamental, strategic questions I am pondering. I’m now asking myself and my colleagues at Root Cause about everything we do. In my next blog post, I will describe for you some of the early adjustments we’ve made that I believe could help propel our sector to realize its full potential.

In a future blog post, I’ll discuss these very topics with Bob Giannino, CEO of uAspire and a member of the Root Cause board of directors. Next time, though, I’m extending the discussion here to take up a critical question: To what end?

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MaryHerbenick

I really appreciate the approach Root Cause is taking and your leadership in this sector. We get really bogged down by the things that don’t really matter. Your blog reminds me to put (and keep) first things first.