Causal Pathways

Many in philanthropy share a common vision of a future where philanthropy is helping us advance to a more equitable world, including that:

  1. Philanthropic work is more centered on the roots of inequities and ultimately has a greater impact on the social issues it seeks to address.

  2. Philanthropy has shifted their relationship to their stakeholders, acting with greater humility and empathy, and giving more room for others to shape their strategies, leading to "true and direct" participation of those in the system.

  3. Philanthropy is accountable and transparent, including publicly sharing their theories about how change will happen.

There are many shifts in the existing system needed to get closer to this vision. One of these is making visible the "black box" of philanthropic and systems change strategies, helping us collectively see how systems are (or are not) changing.

A new initiative, Causal Pathways, seeks to help philanthropy and other funders open-up the black box of strategy and systems change by building awareness, will, and skills to use evaluation approaches that can make sense of causal relationships without depending on more traditional experimental and quasi-experimental approaches.

The Causal Pathways initiative was initially launched by the Walton Family Foundation in 2021 with leadership from Jewlya Lynn at PolicySolve and a network of methodologists and evaluators around the world participating. It is expanding in 2023 to include co-leadership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation and ORS Impact, an expanded network of partners and actions, and new funders including Humanity United and The California Endowment.

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Getting Involved

In 2023, the Causal Pathways Initiative will be sharing insights on an SSIR webinar, hosting a symposium, launching a resource hub, and recruiting early career evaluators to join projects to build a diverse pipeline of people ready to do this work. Please let us know if you'd like to be informed when opportunities to learn and get engaged are launched.

Learn about opportunities to get involved!

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Learning More

Looking to learn more? 


The network developed a short document that shares key concepts and definitions. 

The Lost Causal article also helps to debunk a set of myths that have prevented the exploration of causal pathways from becoming part of our systems change work in philanthropy.

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The Network & Actions

The participants in the emerging network are engaged in five different shared actions: initial experiments to see how we can collectively influence the philanthropic and funding environment and support the field of evaluation to begin to deploy these approaches. The actions include:

  • Developing a resource hub

  • Clarifying how power and participation are central to causal pathways

  • Planning a symposium

  • Engaging funders/influencers to build will

  • Using social media to build visibility (#causalpathways, #reclaimingcausal)

More actions will be identified in the coming months as new people opt into the work, the network engages in shared sensemaking about what we're learning and seeing, and the resources to support participants to take action increase.

This report explores the assessment network members made in 2021 about the needs and opportunities, as well as initial actions.