Lost Causal: Debunking Myths About Causal Analysis in Philanthropy

Published: January 2022

Type: Publication

JewlyaLynn
SarahStachowiak
Julia Coffman, Headshot

What if philanthropic evaluations told us that changes in the world had occurred, as well as how and why they occurred, including in what ways foundation funding and grantees contributed to those changes? What if evaluations made change pathways more visible, tested hypotheses and assumptions, and generated new insights based on what happened in the “black box” of systems change strategies? This type of learning comes from causal analysis — inquiry that explores cause-and-effect relationships.

Yet currently in philanthropy, particularly for strategies and initiatives that feature high complexity, few evaluations use robust techniques for understanding causality. Instead, philanthropic evaluation tends to rely on descriptive measurement and analysis. These descriptions often are rich, meaningful, and in-depth, but they remain merely descriptions nonetheless. This article challenges the myths that hold us back from causal inquiry, allowing us to embrace curiosity, inquiry, and better knowing, even (or especially) if it means learning that our assumptions and theories do not hold up.

We argue that philanthropy more frequently needs to examine causal relationships, using a growing suite of methodological approaches that make this possible in complex systems.

Causal methodologies can challenge and strengthen the often uncontested beliefs that underlie philanthropic interventions, while offering evidence about enabling contexts and system drivers. Strong causal analysis considers not only the funder’s model and assumptions, but also the beliefs others hold about how and why change occurs, opening the door to more equitable and less biased ways of understanding change.