(Illustration by iStock/MHJ)

The world has changed, seemingly overnight. In the United States, against the backdrop of systemic racism, school boards and city councils are rethinking the role of police in their communities, confederate symbols are coming down, and businesses are using their marketing dollars to declare their support for Black Lives Matter. Around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread suffering, and in many ways defining what humans and the planet are—and aren’t—capable of.

As people in the social change arena are feeling called to step into this moment, many are wondering: How do we move forward? How can we create a future significantly different from our past?

A Framework for Creating the Future We Want

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”—Buckminster Fuller


For the last decade, the network of people at Creating the Future has been developing and testing a framework for creating visionary social change. While most social innovations aim at innovative actions, the “catalytic thinking” framework aims at the thinking behind those actions— the beliefs and assumptions that invisibly inform every decision people make. In analyzing those assumptions and beliefs, we see that they are actually answers to questions we don’t realize we’re asking. For example, our assumptions about whether the world is round or flat answer the unspoken question: “What will happen if I head to the horizon?”

To create an equitable, healthy world, we need to ask questions rooted in the reality of our potential, including:

  • The reality that unless something is physically impossible, it is possible
  • The reality that we can accomplish together what none of us can accomplish alone
  • The reality that together we have all the resources we need

Unfortunately, social change work is commonly guided by questions rooted in reactivity, suspicion, and scarcity—a legacy from the business and military origins of social sector planning. These include:

  • What is the problem and how will we react to it?
  • Who is our competition?
  • Where will the money come from?

Like a horse wearing blinders, these questions reveal only a narrow slice of reality. Creating a healthy, equitable future requires just the opposite; it requires that we see the whole realm of our potential as achievable. The tools we use to do this must reflect the values we want to see in the world (such as compassion, openness, equity, and participation), and the interdependent relationship between our planet and each other.

What this means for creating a future different from our past is simple and profound: Because our thinking (and therefore our actions) are based on the questions we ask, changing those questions can dramatically change our results.

In developing this framework, our research included historical perspectives, including faith traditions, social movement theory, and economics; planning and engagement methodologies such as appreciative inquiryasset-based community development, and community organizing; and scientific perspectives such as neuroscience, cognitive science, physics, and math. We then experimented, applying those disciplines to the task of changing the questions that guide three core components of any effort:

  1. People: Who will be affected by and help effect the change?
  2. Purpose: Where will we aim?
  3. Resources: What will we need to accomplish the goal?

The result is a framework designed specifically for the aspirational work of the social sector.

Questions About People

Planning in the social sector generally focuses on fixing the problems of a specific target population, often bolstered by some form of situational analysis like a needs assessment. Catalytic thinking, on the other hand, looks beyond that target population to anyone who might be affected by an effort. By asking, “Who will be affected by whatever actions we take?” we find ways for everyone—both the likely and unlikely prospects—to participate and partner. The framework then guides us to listen for the aspirations, values, and strengths (not just problems and conflicts) of everyone touched by the organization’s mission. This bakes interconnectedness and shared power into all discussions. Importantly, it also reduces unintended consequences that occur when our narrow focus fails to consider everyone.

For example, as part of its strategic planning, a Canadian organization focused on the prevention of child abuse listed out the wide range of groups who might be affected by the issue. The organization’s then-CEO Karen Smith recalls that the list was long, inclusive, and detailed. When someone suggested including refugees, for instance, the group made separate entries for each of the locations from which refugees were arriving. Noting that some were from Muslim communities in Syria prompted the organization to initiate conversations with the Imam at a local mosque, which led to it offering programs at the mosque itself. Asking that one inclusive question thus allowed a group of individuals that may otherwise have been overlooked to receive culturally appropriate help in an environment where they felt safe.

Questions About Purpose

Rather than thinking of “the vision” as a warm-up exercise before getting to “the real stuff,” Catalytic thinking assumes that high-potential outcomes are the real stuff. Again, unless something is physically impossible, it is possible. From there, the framework asks what conditions and pre-conditions could turn the vision into reality, like dominoes tumbling inevitably toward the goal.

This approach helped the School-Based Health Alliance shift its narrow medical focus to the broader context of thriving children. Nurses and other clinicians began inquiring more deeply into conditions in children’s homes and communities, and considering the effect of those conditions on children’s physical and mental health. Questions included:

  • What factors would lead to children feeling safe, wanted, and heard when they are in school?
  • What structural issues, such as racism or poverty, are showing up as health issues? For example, are there links between living conditions and asthma?
  • What will lead students to feel their school is an integral, valued part of their neighborhood community?

Questions like these create a step-by-step path between today and a better future, moving the finish line beyond simply solving the immediate problem and putting in place the dominoes that will lead to more-visionary outcomes. For the School-Based Heath Alliance, learning that children were going home to public housing where they were often exposed to roaches, rats, and pollutants led to social campaigns and conversations with legislators about larger public health issues. Treating children when they were sick became just one of many necessary conditions for them to achieve real health and joy, and for entire communities to improve public health and equity.

In another example, HIV/AIDS Resources and Community Health (ARCH), a community-based outpatient clinic for people living with HIV/AIDS, envisions “a time and place where everyone is free to live healthy, stigma-free, vital lives.” To create the path toward achieving its vision, questions about patients’ physical health were certainly one part of the story. But there were other questions:

  • What would people in the community need to know in order for our vision to be reality?
  • What would people need to feel?
  • What would they need to experience?

Answers included conditions such as compassion, justice, and connection. While social sector planning often eschews such words because they are hard to quantify, ARCH created innovative programs to turn those seemingly ethereal conditions into reality.

Questions About Resources

Catalytic thinking is also rooted in what we call “collective enoughness”—the theory that, together, we have everything we need. “Resources are scarce” and “competition is reality” are stories our culture repeats so often we take them as truth. But resources and money are not the same thing. Real resources are the things money buys—office space, vehicles, people’s time. Those resources are all around us and are so easy to share that almost everyone has a sharing story.

Decades ago, my partner and I founded the world’s first diaper bank, providing diapers and incontinence supplies to people in need. Each year, the organization collected and distributed almost 1 million diapers while running awareness campaigns (via billboards, speaking engagements, radio and tv ads, and interviews) about the realities of life in poverty. Instead of creating a cash budget and seeking funding, we created a sharing budget that noted what we needed and who might have it, and then sought out partners. In listing out operational functions like warehousing and case management, for example, we asked, “Who is already doing that?” The resulting infrastructure was built entirely on shared resources—even our tax exemption was via fiscal sponsorship. This brought our annual cash budget down to just $75,000 and, importantly, fostered a sense of shared ownership of the mission. As one of our partners at United Way once put it, “You couldn’t kill the diaper bank if you wanted to; the community wouldn’t let you.”

Changing the Questions Today

The sea change we are witnessing in the Black Lives Matter movement exemplifies what is possible when the questions at the heart of social change efforts focus on inclusion, strength, vision, causality, and sharing. The movement demonstrates the power of people-focused questions such as, “Whose lives will be touched by our actions?” and “Who else cares about the things we care about?” The American Prospect even titled an article, “The Inclusive Strength of #BlackLivesMatter,” describing the movement as “intertwined with labor, economic justice, immigration, and LGBT rights from the beginning.”

Movement leaders have aimed with intention at their visionary purpose: “A world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.” From there, they laid out dominoes too numerous to count, including: educating white allies to influence other white people; generating resources to replace assumptions with facts, such as booksvisual memes, resource lists, and even cartoons; and moving equity issues from the sidelines to front-and-center for many grant-making foundations. In those actions, one can hear the questions:

  • What will it take for our vision to be reality?
  • What do people need to know?
  • What do they need to believe?

As for actions rooted in collective enoughness, we see sharing happening in simple acts, such as groups providing water and personal protective equipment for protestors around the United States. It’s also apparent in more far-reaching efforts, such as the Seattle-based social justice effort to ground fundraising in racial equity. The core principles of community-centric fundraising encourage nonprofits to support each other, in part by sharing their previously well-guarded relationships with donors and funders.

As Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis observed just weeks before he left us, “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive. There will be no turning back.” That sentiment echoes the observations of catalytic thinking practitioners: Change doesn’t have to happen slowly and incrementally. Change can happen quickly and dramatically when we change the questions that guide our work.

The Time Is Now

There really is no turning back. The social sector is being called to step into this moment and create a future that is dramatically different from our past. Will we choose to ask the questions traditional planning has encouraged us to ask, guided by the scarcity-driven assumption that the best we can do is react to our problems?

Or will we ask questions that remove our blinders, revealing the whole picture of what is possible, and the dominoes that will turn that potential into reality? Questions rooted in our strength and our interconnectedness. Questions that guide us to be the future we want to see. These are the questions that will provide a path to hope for our planet and ourselves. It is now up to all of us to step into the power and potential that lies just beyond our blinders, waiting for us to embrace it.

A chart comparing commonly asked questions to the questions posed by catalytic thinking is available here.