The Roots of Change: Conceptual Models in the Non-Profit Sector

by Simon Dennis, 2008


“Without a revolution of spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”
- Aung Sang Suu Kyi  Burmese prodemocracy activist, Winner 1991 Nobel Peace Prize,  Conservative Forces within the Non-Profit Sector

According to a joint report from the Independent Sector and the Foundation Center, by the late 1990’s, the influx of large fortunes from the technology field into private foundations had promoted outcomes measurement as a primary means of organizational evaluation.  The hope was that the accountability and efficiency of the business sector would help productivity in the non-profit sector as well. (Ramos & Nielsen, 2005, p. 45)

While this development may have succeeded in these ways, because organizations are led by their reporting requirements, foundation emphasis of measurable outcomes has also pushed the non-profit sector towards pursuing the solutions that are easiest to measure, that is, solutions that are short-term and symptomatic.

A specific example of how this results can be seen in the case of a homeless shelter.   In an outcomes-driven philanthropic sector, a homeless shelter that needs to compete for funding will pursue the most impressive numbers to report at the end of each year.  These numbers often report something like “beds filled” or “resident stays.”  The need to produce favorable reports of this sort can influence organizations away from less tangible aspects of their work, such as community building or supporting the capacity of residents to secure and maintain housing of their own.  In this case, the year-end numbers may look good, but the long-term impact of the organization may be diminished.

Similar examples of the way that focus on measurable outcomes pushes organizations to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of problems can be found throughout the non-profit sector.  The cumulative result of foundation reliance on measurable outcomes is that the non-profit sector as a whole becomes more conservative: organizations are influenced towards the maintenance rather than the transformation of society and asked to be providers of services rather than the agents of social change.

This orientation is not appropriate at a time when there is a high level of agreement within the scientific community that the long-term health of the planet calls for profound change to almost every sector of society (Working Group III, 2007, p. 12, 14).  Nor is it timely in an era when the U.S. rate of incarceration is four times the international average (Hartney, 2006, p. 1), and the U.S. per-capita rate of depression likely to be greater than that of any other nation (Demyttenaere, K. et al, table 2, 2004).  At the very least, the social, and environmental context of today should suggest that the portfolios of American foundations and non-profits should shift away from maintenance oriented strategies in favor of strategies that bring about broader social transformation.

A more precise way of articulating this idea is that the conditions of modern American society call the non-profit sector to shift its focus “upstream” to address the causes rather than the symptoms of the social problems confronting this era.  Despite the increased importance it gives to measurable outcomes, the philanthropy sector is well aware of this historical mandate and currently has a particular interest in funding the solutions to the root causes of social problems. (Smith, 2005, p. 2) Unfortunately, exactly what it means to “go upstream” and exactly where these roots are to be found are not widely agreed upon.

This article will discuss two different views that guide the non-profit sector’s thinking about what it means to go “upstream” to address the root causes of social problems.  These views will be referred to as the “structural” and the “mind-centric” models. After describing each and discussing their philosophical underpinnings, this paper will suggest that the mind-centric model should be emphasized through adding mind-centric tools that foundations can use to evaluate the organizations they fund.

Two Ways of Locating the Ultimate Cause

Exemplifying the structural approach, United Way of America (UWA) helped bring the phrase “going upstream” into common usage when it shifted its strategy from funding “program outcomes” to funding “community outcomes.” (United Way of America, 2005) Because UWA defines community outcomes as “changes to organizations, systems, neighborhoods, and networks” (United Way ofAmerica, 2007) this shift implies that the UWA locates the root cause of our social problems in the nature of the organizations, systems, neighborhoods and networks of our communities.  Because these are structures of society, UWA’s approach can be considered structural.

As the opening quote from Aung Sang Suu Kyi reflects, there is another view that comes into the dialogue about the roots of our social problems from contemplative traditions. The mind-centric model suggests that the roots of our social problems are found in the state on the hearts and minds of the people who make up society.Examples of the structural and mind-centric models can be seen in the popular dialogue about the roots of war.  The following quote from Brian Martin’s bookUprooting War, (1984) reflects the above mentioned structural approach taken by UWA:

What are the roots of war? They are not the weapons or the soldiers or the political or military elites. Take these away and new ones would soon take their places. The roots of war are the social structures which maintain centralized political and economic power, inequality and privilege, and monopolies over organized violence to protect power and privilege. Some of the key roots of war are the state system, bureaucracy, the military and patriarchy.          (pg.2)

Notice that Brian Martin’s “the state system, bureaucracy, the military and patriarchy” are examples of the “organizations and systems” cited by the UWA.

The structural approach of Brian Martin and the United Way can be contrasted with the mind-centric model implied by the answer to the same question in the following quote by the Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn:

We often think of peace as the absence of war; that if the powerful countries would reduce their arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds – our prejudices, fears, and ignorance. Even if we transported all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the reasons for bombs would still be here, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we would make new bombs.                                        (Seeking Peace, 1998 xvi)

Notice the similarity between these two quotes about the roots of war.  Both Brian Martin and Thich Nhat Hahn contrast their view with the idea that the roots of war can be found in military arsenals.  Both reject this view with the statement that even if all the weapons were taken away, they would be made again.  And both make a suggestion about where the roots of war can actually be found.  Brian Martin suggests they are in the structures of society.  Thich Nhat Hahn finds them in the hearts and minds of the people who make up society.

So within this field of “going upstream” we find two camps, the structural camp and the mind-centric camp.  There is a practical distinction between them in that each view suggests different ways of eradicating the roots of war.  The structural approach could suggest forms of social activism, such as grass roots organizing, whereas the mind-centric view might suggest contemplative practice as a practical way of promoting peace.

In addition to the strategies they suggest, these two models can be distinguished from one another in that they stem from fundamentally different assumptions about the relationship between consciousness and the world it perceives.

Underlying Worldviews of the Structural and Mind-Centric Models

A matter of great debate within the history of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions is the question of which came first, consciousness or the world it perceives.  Materialistic schools of philosophy, such as those that dominate the current philosophical debate in the U.S., argue that consciousness is created out of material building blocks.  Philosophers of this ilk believe that the perception of consciousness is born of the interactions of neurons in the synapses of the brain.  Contrary to this, Idealist philosophers, of several varieties, believe that what seems to be the material world is actually rooted in consciousness.

Philosophical materialism, (the view that all phenomena are the result of material interactions) and philosophical idealism, (the view that all phenomena are the result of consciousness) are fundamental models for explaining the world.  Because they are broad enough to be called worldviews, these outlooks are like rooms one walks into.  Once inside, the way of thinking sets the rules for all of the thinking that can be taken seriously.  Pretty soon a chosen way of thinking appears to be the only way of thinking or even reality itself. (Kuhn, 1970, p. 111)

Philosophical materialism is currently the prevailing model within the non-profit and philanthropy sectors.  This worldview has a profound impact on the direction of the non-profit sector as it guides its assumptions about where to find the root causes of social problems.  Organizations guided by a materialistic outlook often locate the causes of social problems in the physical or structural conditions of society and offer interventions that address the exterior world.

However, when viewed from an idealistic perspective, these interventions appear insufficient.  Because idealism views the external world as emerging from consciousness, they suggest that until the problem is treated in the minds of those who perpetrate it, the problem will return.  For example, Pema Chodron, the Resident Teacher of the Buddhist monastery Gampo Abbey, expresses the ancient view of her tradition when she writes: “War and peace start in the hearts of individuals . . . We can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.” (Chodron, 2006,p.15)  Just as this advice has implications for where the anti-war movement should start, the mind-centric model has implications for how the non-profit sector should operate.

Why the Non-Profit Sector also Needs the Mind-Centric Model

Both the mind-centric and the structural models have important rolls to play in the non-profit sector.  However, certain advantages of the mind-centric approach suggest that the structural model’s effectiveness in framing the upstream work of the non-profit sector could be augmented by the influence of a mind-centric model.  Three strengths of the mind-centric model follow.

The first strength is that, whereas the structural model can divide efforts, the mind-centric model facilitates collaboration.  For example, the structural causes of a problem like homelessness are simultaneously economic, educational, legislative as well as related to structures of healthcare, housing, and transportation.  When an organization decides to address a structural cause, the first question is, which one?  For organizations to be able to collaborate on a single structural cause requires an unusual convergence of interests.

The mind-centric model, however, facilitates collaboration by framing the upstream efforts of organizations in a way that accentuates what they have in common: all organizations change human behavior by impacting the hearts and minds of individuals.  Additionally, in the same way that our deepest desires have more in common than our day to day concerns, it can be said that the deeper the internal cause, the greater the degree of convergence.  This “convergent” aspect of the mind-centric model yields the result that organizations progressing upstream in mind-centric terms will be working on increasingly similar endeavors.

The second strength is that the mind-centric model presents manageable tasks.  Organizations designed to provide services such as housing the homeless may not be well equipped to change the structures of society, but given that non-profit organizations must all change human behavior, they are well suited to address mind-centric causes.

In addition to these two strengths, the mind-centric model is comparatively simple.  For example, taking the relationships between the structures of society into account shows structural causes to be interwoven into a fabric of interrelated causes and effects.  It is not hard to agree upon clear descriptions of mind-centric levels of depth that govern human behavior.  One such framework of internal causal levels is the Four-Level Model.

The Four-Level Model for Analyzing the Causes of Social Problems

If foundation reliance on measurable outcomes steers the non-profit sector away from root-cause solutions, encouraging organizations to pursue these solutions requires foundations to have a way to evaluate how far causally upstream and organization’s work is taking place.

Because the structures of society are so distinct, the structural model does not provide an ideal framework for a standardized metric of this sort.  A way of measuring how far upstream an organization’s work is taking place, however, can be created within the mind-centric model.  This tool could function by evaluating the causal levels of a social problem in terms of the degree of depth of the internal factors that guide the behavior of the people contributing to the problem.

Following a mind-centric approach, the four causal levels of a social problem could be stratified in the following way.  The physical symptoms of the problem, that is, the physical conditions that cause people to suffer or lose freedom, could be the first or the “physical” level.  The skills, knowledge and assumptions of the people affecting the problem could be grouped into the second or “cognitive” level.  The motivation, desires and internal blockages of the people affecting the problem could be the third or “motivational” level.  And the degree of love and compassion, that is, the direct connections that this group has with the world could be the fourth, or “ultimate” causal level of the problem.

When foundations can evaluate and predict organizational impact on each of these four levels, these practices will help guide the non-profit sector towards fulfilling its greatest mandate: facilitating the personal and social transformation that this country needs.


Arnold, Johann Christoph. Seeking Peace: Notes and Conversations Along the Way, with preface by Thich Nhat Hahn (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 1998) xvi

Chodron, Pema. Practicing Peace in Times of War, (Shambhala Publications, 2006) p. 15

Demyttenaere, K, et al. “Prevalence, severity and unmet need for treatment of mental disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys” Journal of the American Medical Association, 291 (2004) 2581-2590.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 111.

Lawrence, Steven, ed, 2005 Social Justice Grantmaking, Smith, Bradford K. & Ramos, Henry A.J., Nielsen, Scott. The Independent Sector & The Foundation Center, (2005)

Martin, Brian. Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1990) Intro par. 5

Web References

Hartney, Christopher, “U.S. Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective,” National Council on Crime and Delinquency <> (7 August 2007)

Working Group III, “Contribution to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate.  Summary for policy makers.” (Table spm 3, p. 12,14) <> (7 August 2007)

“Connecting Program Outcomes Measurement to Community Impact” United Way of America, 2005, <> (7 August 2007)

“Program Outcomes and Community Outcomes, What are the Differences?” United Way of America, 2007, <> (7 August 2007)