The Minneapolis Foundation’s Catalyst Initiative honors and fosters culturally authentic self-care practices to advance the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. I have worked closely with the organization’s Executive Director, Suzanne Koepplinger, so I have been able to see the impact of their work firsthand.  While reading through a recent evaluation of Catalyst Initiative’s impact over the past eight years, I was struck by several insights. Their impressive impact and my own insights have led me to a new way of thinking about ways to influence change in systems

Networks not Programs

First, evaluators saw this work through the lens of a network – not a program! Traditionally, we evaluate activities and programs, but in this case, the Catalyst Initiative built relationships that strengthen and unleash people’s talents.  The resulting changes generate far greater overall health in the individuals and their communities.

Nature is designed as a network and it prioritizes relationships as a way to strengthen interdependence and its overall purpose. One of the secrets behind the Catalyst Initiative’s impact is that the heart of their work is anchored in the relationships between the communities engaged with their work. As a result of interdependence, the organization has cultivated a talented network of people engaged and committed to its mission. By using this relational approach, this new network continues to scale and spread integrated health and healing throughout many communities.

An Unusual Theory of Change

Second, I was intrigued by the way the report’s evaluators viewed the Catalyst Initiative’s own theory of change.

Catalyst Initiative’s Theory of Change is less logic model and more DNA. Less smart goals and more poetry. Less return on investment calculations and more an act of love.

For those of us who have been brought up on logic models as a primary theory of change framework, Catalyst’s description of change sounds like a radical departure. In reality, it aligns beautifully with how change occurs in Nature, where the focus is on the evolution of the entire system.

Let’s look at the alignment between Nature’s theory of change, and the Catalyst Initiative view. Nature is designed is to support information (DNA) and feedback that help shape the direction and evolution of the ecosystem. It’s structured as a dynamic network that is constantly changing. Only the species that continue to adapt to the changing larger ecosystem will survive to pass on their DNA.  This evolution is really more of a dance than a straight line from conception to goal. So, logic models that imply control and singular cause and effect misrepresent the complexity of the system.

Catalyst Initiative helps people see their health in a different way. When non-profits see their work as building a movement (not just a set of programs) they are more engaged in shifting the mental and emotional DNA of the system or community through information sharing and helping people to see why this new way of thinking matters.

Catalyst Initiative’s theory of change is a departure from business practice and management theory. It is based on a living system framework and uses Nature’s strategies to create a deeper and more meaningful impact.

Click here for the summary evaluation and complete report.