The Catalyst Model: How philanthropy and state government partnered on a community-centric model for health improvement

By Jamie Cousins

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts sharing lessons from the Catalyst for Healthy Eating and Active Living program (Catalyst)!
In this post, we’ll reflect on the Catalyst model and the following questions:

  • WHY is partnership between philanthropy and state government so valuable?
  • HOW do you make a program or initiative community-centric?    

In 2012, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust provided funding for the Catalyst program which was delivered in partnership with the NC Division of Public Health. The Catalyst implemented proven and promising strategies to support community changes for healthy eating and active living in eight North Carolina counties. A few benefits from this strategic investment and partnership were:

It’s no secret that cross-sector partnerships are valuable. Savvy philanthropies looking to make an impact in communities should consider strategic partnerships with state government. The Catalyst for Healthy Eating and Active Living program (Catalyst) was created to leverage the resources of philanthropy and state government. The results included notable changes for Catalyst communities and valuable lessons shared with state public health.

First, WHY is partnership between philanthropy and state government so valuable?

  • As the Catalyst program manager, I was housed at the NC Division of Public Health alongside experts in healthy eating and active living. This positioning allowed me to build collaboration with state health department programs that extended to the county-based Catalyst coordinators.
  • Catalyst coordinators were regularly invited to participate in state public health trainings where they made important connections with statewide and regional public health experts. They also gained skills which they shared with local partners and infused directly in their community work.
  • The Catalyst enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with the state health department that leveraged state resources for Catalyst communities and also provided important insights from communities to inform statewide initiatives and accelerate training on equity.

From 2012 through 2018, the Catalyst team regularly participated in trainings offered by state partners, such as the 2017 Move More, Walk Now Summit. Above, Catalyst evaluator ShaCoria Winston rides the bus with NC State Cooperative Extension agent Jayne McBurney, Faithful Families Thriving Communities associate Julia Yao, and others. Participants were transported to neighborhoods for hands-on training to assess walkability and discuss ways to improve walking routes to shopping, schools, etc. This event was hosted by Eat Smart, Move More NC with support from the NC Division of Public Health, Community and Clinical Connections for Prevention and Health (CCCPH) Branch.

Second, HOW do you make a program or initiative community-centric?

Partnerships between philanthropy and government are not inherently focused on community level change. The Catalyst program was designed to be community-centric— to maintain a steady focus on listening to and working with communities to advance their vision for health. Rooted in an asset-based community development approach, the Catalyst program used the following (and many more) practices to keep the community at the center of the work:

  • The Catalyst program began its work with communities by first calling and then convening local partners across organizations and engaging them in decision making about the program. These partners determined where the Catalyst coordinator would be housed locally, and they were instrumental in recruiting and vetting candidates for their local Catalyst coordinator position.
  • Staff work plans for the Catalyst coordinators included building collaboration, communication, and community engagement. Training and team culture reinforced a focus on understanding the local context, facilitating greater inclusion, and embedding approaches for health equity.
  • Catalyst coordinators worked (and most lived) right in their communities. They have a deep knowledge of the area’s geography, history, and values. Catalyst coordinators developed trust with local partners who they knew would keep community interests at the fore. They were also instrumental in facilitating introductions between local and statewide/regional partners who offered limited time services or programs to the community.

Here, former Halifax County Catalyst Coordinator Erin Carson comments on health equity at the Move More, Walk Now Summit.

The Catalyst aimed to understand, empower, and build capacity within communities so they could continue making changes to improve health and vitality for everyone. Our unique placement within the NC Division of Public Health supercharged our abilities to leverage partnerships and resources for communities. Our community-centric design allowed us to serve communities and lift up valuable voices and lessons to inform statewide public health. For philanthropies considering ways to maximize their investments, partnering with state public health can be strategic in making local change and informing statewide efforts.

To learn more about the role of the Catalyst Coordinator, stay tuned for our next blog – The Art of Being a Catalyst

The Catalyst for Healthy Eating and Active Living is a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation in partnership with the NC Division of Public Health’s Community and Clinical Connections for Prevention and Health Branch with funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

To see our Five-Year Summary and Catalyst Video, please visit our webpage.

Contact Jamie Cousins, Catalyst Program Director, at / (919) 707-5241 for info or with questions.