In his lovely essay, “The Evolving American Foundation,” James Allen Smith describes how the germ metaphor ignited the imaginations of many who worked in the foundation field at the turn of the last century. This metaphor was especially seductive because it suggested that we might understand and address our social ills the way we diagnose and cure disease. According to Smith, the germ metaphor fell out of favor some time later and was supplanted by others that more accurately reflected social complexities.
But the use of the germ metaphor has stuck with us. It’s clearly related to the metaphor of the root cause which persists in the parlance and thinking of philanthropy. We still hear of programs, such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, for example, that “aim to address the root causes of poverty in America.” And indeed, a casual Google search on the phrase “root cause(s)” will turn up many more. The metaphor of the root cause has many cousins in philanthropy, among them the lever and the key (as in the “key to the puzzle”).
Nowadays we recognize, as others did long ago, that there are conceptual difficulties in identifying anything like a root cause of poverty (beyond the condition of not having any money). The phenomenon of poverty is part of a dynamic system of many parts, interacting in complicated ways. This complex system has no discernible root that we can yank out of the ground as we might the root of a noxious weed.
But we shouldn’t let ourselves be too awed by the image of the complex system. Physicists, economists, electrical engineers, and others have been successful in creating mathematical models of very complex systems and using these models to predict the behavior of these systems over time. Jay Forrester, for example, used one such model to analyze industrial business cycles and another to analyze the behavior of the stock market. What’s unusual about these models is that they lack a point of origin—there’s no discernible “root.” What you have instead are “feedback loops” and entities called “stocks” and “flows.” These constructs enable you to predict how a system will respond when you change one of its properties.
Here perhaps is another case where foundations have imported the words and concepts of other disciplines without also importing their insights. As foundation professionals we talk about complex systems, yet we don’t often apply the tools developed in other domains to study them. In our weaker moments, we might even invoke the complexity of a system as an excuse for our inability to make any headway on a given problem.
I suggested in another post that meaningful campaign finance and lobbying reform might the keys to making significant headway on the issue of persistent poverty in this country. But would a deeper analysis tell us that this too is a will o’ the wisp? Is it folly to search for root causes or pressure points? Or is it the case, as La Rochefoucauld once said, that the man who lives without folly isn't so wise as he thinks?