Monthly Archives: April 2016

How to Use the Cause Effect Chain

Nonprofits start with the recognition of a problem, a vision of the problem solved, and a mission to achieve the vision and solve the problem. This is basis foundation for strategic planning and is the key to winning donors, grants, and volunteers. One of the biggest problems in grant applications is not properly stating the problem, or, more commonly, not stating the right problem.

Everything is driven by the definition of the problem. Once you get that right, the rest comes much more easily. But defining the problem is more complex than it looks.

I frequently see grant applications for funding to provide additional reading interventions for early elementary students. They will state the problem as x% of third grade students reading below grade level, and the goal is y% (y > x) of third grade students reading at or above grade level. but as a potential donor, funder, or volunteer, I want to know why that is important.

They will respond that reading proficiency is an important factor in high school graduation rates. OK, so why is that important?

High school graduates have higher earnings as an adult. So economic well-being increases.

So we have a chain of causes and their effects (problems):

Low reading proficiency ⇒ more high school dropouts ⇒ fewer graduates  ⇒ lower incomes  ⇒ more crime and dependency  ⇒ lower GNP & GDP

But the chain also goes the other way. Why is proficiency low? It could be because there are too few teachers for close attention. It could be because most do not have reading opportunities at home, or they have english as a second language, or reading is not valued at home, or they don’t have breakfast in the morning, or any of a hundred other reasons.

Understanding the causal factors is important. Remember the old illustration of the townspeople who saw a baby floating in a river. They rescued him. Then there was another, and another, and another. They were very busy rescuing babies. Finally, they sent someone upriver to find out why the babies were in the river in the first place. (Usually the answer is something like a troll was grabbing them off his bridge and throwing them in the river.)

In the long run, it is better to address the root cause than to just keep addressing the immediate issue over and over again.

Some people will attempt to solve a problem by  prohibiting the problem.  This usually makes the problem worse or creates new problems as the root causes still exist.

For example, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the sale of liquor without removing the root cause. People with a thirst quickly found many ways around it and crime gangs arose to meet the needs.

Looking at the reading score example, some people have suggested that we just require everyone to graduate from high school, ignoring the fact that many people don’t have the necessary skills…and there are reasons why they don’t have the skills. Mandating the expected outcome just does not work. You must address the root cause to permanently solve the issue.

Private versus Public Outcome.

Note in the reading example that outcomes related to the initial parts of the cause and effect chain provide an benefit to the individual client, such as a higher reading score. This is called a private outcome.

The outcome related to the final effect impacts society as a whole. This is a public outcome.

To be effective, the ultimate public outcome should always be clearly defined.


Always focus on the root causes to achieve a permanent solution.

Always state a clear public outcome.