I am quick to tell non-profit friends, colleagues, and clients that they need to be clear about their outcomes, as described in this blog post and this YouTube video:

Remember, you, your team, and your supporters need to know WHY you are doing your work, running your programs, pursuing your strategies. And the core element of WHY is “what problems are you trying to solve.”

Perhaps answering that question is easy. Maybe the challenge is front page news. In this part of the country, the skyrocketing cost of housing is on everyone’s mind, so housing non-profits have an easy-to-understand WHY at the ready. In other parts, where capital has left whole regions, economic development and reducing the effects of widespread poverty are the obvious WHY for your work.

But most non-profits are solving problems that do not make it on the evening news or front page of the newspaper. Environmental non-profits, which make up less than 5% of the United States’ charities, often struggle with this. Because people’s livelihoods may not be central to your mission, and because the science behind your work is hard to deliver in a sound bite, creating your WHY might take some work.

That is why I recommend that non-profits take some time to model the environmental and socioeconomic systems they are working in. Modeling these systems will help your team build a shared understanding of “what is going on.” And when you are in agreement about this, you can discuss what potential outcome-oriented goals will solve multiple problems.

Here are five things you should consider in modeling the systems you operate in, and in using them to build your WHY (i.e. outcome-oriented goals): 

  1. Box and arrow diagrams are your friend.
    Systems function in all sorts of ways: linearly, networked, cyclical, etc. Map these cause and effect relationships with simple box and arrow diagrams. We recommend large PostIt notes or other two dimensional techniques you can do together on a large blank wall.
  2. Start with your target systems and work “backwards.”
    Once you are clear on what your target systems are, put them on the right of a linear diagram and work backwards to the left. Start with measurable attributes of the system that are doing poorly and then add human or other factors that are contributing to that attribute’s condition. Remember, this is a cause and effect model, one thing leads to another which leads to another. Also, there can be multiple relationships between effects.
  3. The content of the diagrams is more important than the architecture.
    Be happy to get as much content as possible into your model at first, and worry less about how it relates or functions. This helps create a “brainstorming” environment where everyone can contribute and unexpected knowledge can surface. You can refine the relationships in the model later using online tools such as Figjam, LucidSpark, or Foundation of Success’ Miradi.
  4. Is there consensus about your model?
    A team of about a dozen content experts from your organization, board, partners, or universities is a good size to create these models. Once drafted, how do people feel about it? Does it represent their view of the system you are working in? What is missing? Who else might be able to review it to “check your work?”
  5. Are there “pressure points” in the model that can inform your WHY?
    Once you have consensus on your models, what elements of them are obvious places for you to have impact in a way that furthers your mission. Are there root causes you can address that reduce multiple issues down the causal chain? Is there a central “threat” that is impacting multiple attributes of the target system? Is it best just to measure the improvement of one or two attributes and then develop “killer app” strategies that will make a difference there? This is an art, but it is also fun! 

This is a picture of a modelling discussion I facilitated this week. It may look messy but after discussion, graphical refinement, and a little polishing, this exercise will reveal the top issues for you to further analyze.

You and your team may feel like you understand what is happening where you work. But taking the time to map it out together can illuminate biases, opportunities, or unexpected challenges. Several hours spent on this can double your impact over several years, an incredible return on investment by any measure. Email us to learn more or to discuss how we can help you!