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Field Notes

Root Cause in 2021: Living out our values by learning and evolving

Erin Rodriguez
February 5, 2021

As we step into 2021, there is no doubt that Root Cause, like much of the world, must both stay grounded in our values and evolve to meet the needs of this moment. Root Cause has always been an organization with big ideas and tactics that are adaptable to suit the needs of our clients.  Focused primarily on foundations and nonprofit organizations that work in education, healthcare, economic stability, and the intersection of all these things, we provide strategy, growth, performance measurement and collective action assistance to our clients in the nonprofit sector and communities, who work to cultivate the conditions for people to succeed. Over the past year, all of us have been confronted by multiple crises and deep moments of reflection. As a team, we’ve leaned into the idea of ‘learning together and learning out loud,’ and have been asking ourselves the questions: What is our place within the systems that both help and hinder the realization of a more just world? How do we focus our work to ensure that our efforts are directed toward real change?  

We believe in the work of nonprofits and in the power of their staff to make change. We know through experience that with targeted, tailored support, nonprofits can significantly strengthen their capacity to fulfill their missions. Social service nonprofits bear the dual responsibility of holding together the social safety net that several decades of small-government economic policies have dismantled while also creatively solving the challenges that keep people from successful, happy lives. They must simultaneously be reactive by responding to ongoing crises and proactive by coming up with strategic and innovative solutions to society’s most challenging problems. These social service organizations are often expected to achieve these gargantuan goals with limited and restricted resources. This, in turn, limits their capacity to focus on core elements of organizational health and sustainability–  such as strategic planning or strengthening programmatic and operational infrastructure–  that are crucial for retaining committed staff, for ensuring financial sustainability, and for measuring and improving impact.  We are committed to helping funders and nonprofit organizations develop models for collaboration that encourage nonprofits to focus on what they do best as part of a well-balanced ecosystem rather than expecting them to do everything on their own.  

How do we lift up each of these important components of change on every project, and help our partners do the same? As we seek to find good answers, the team has doubled down on a commitment we made to learn together in 2019 and 2020.  One of our strategies was to read books that challenged our practices and helped us learn new approaches.  Most notably, we read Winners Take All by Anand Ghiridharadas.  His unflinching look at the way that those in power use the promise of changing the world to maintain the status quo rattled our hopes that our intentions and the quality of our work were aligned with the change we wanted to see in the world. Chapter 5 of that book, with its description of consultants and slide decks hit a bit too close to home! 

It was another book, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, that grounded us back in the intentions we have for how we work and is helping us adapt our practice.  Emergent strategy helped us understand that we do believe in non linear, iterative collaboration, and moving at the speed of trust.  And that we can believe in those things and in data-driven decision-making, continuous quality improvement, impeccable project management, and meeting deadlines at the same time.  Our practice involves testing which approach is right for the moment and using the strengths of our team that come from our diverse educational, professional, and practical experiences.   

In addition to reading together, late last year, the Root Cause team participated in the first phase of training by the Racial Equity Institute. I wanted to be sure that the organization had a shared understanding of why disparities in outcomes exist for Black, Indigenous and other people of color in education, health and economic stability.   One of our Principles of Engagement is “aim for equity,” which we cannot begin to do if we do not understand where inequity comes from and how it plays out across systems and within the connections between those systems. REI’s Groundwater Approach has given us a starting point for discussing how we and our partners can aim for racial equity within the bounds of our projects and beyond. Solving big problems requires us to work in multiple fields at once, and we aim to help partners recognize and address what is going on at every level:

  • Communities must rise to meet the basic needs of their citizens and also create the conditions for them to access the tools for successful and happy lives such as education, work, housing, and quality health care. 
  • Policy makers, foundations, businesses, and governments must also commit to listening to those who live in their communities and to taking their guidance to change systems that are ineffective at best; and at worst, work against the well-being of so many people.
  • All citizens must commit to understanding and challenging the economic and cultural underpinnings of all those systems that have perpetuated harmful racial inequity and increasing economic and political stratification.  

It’s easy to feel lost in all those layers and to feel small in a big sea of problems, but we are ready for the challenges. We are setting out in this new chapter for Root Cause with an understanding that “small is good.” We know that all big change comes from the accumulation of many small actions. We find ourselves reflective in this moment but also energized and ready to draw on our history of success, while not resting on old ideas. We are committed to testing and adapting our values and our methods to meet the times that we are in and to help our partners do the same. In that spirit, I, and the rest of the team will be using our “Field Notes” to share what we’ve tried, what works, and how we adapt in the face of failure. We will be truly focused on growth– as in, growth mindset– to ensure that Root Cause can help communities and the nonprofit sector that serves them meet this moment of evolution. We hope you’ll tune in to see what we have to say and comment with your thoughts. 

Learn more about Continuous Quality Improvement for social service providers at our Continuous Quality Improvement Resource Library.
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