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Bridging the gap Between “What We Know” and “What We Do”

The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) was created to bridge the gap between what we know scientifically about early brain development and what we do in policy and practice. Bridging this gap requires an understanding of how change occurs in the world, specifically how to foster cross-boundary, system-level, integrated change in policy, service provision, and on-the-ground practice.

The AFWI’s theory of change is a causal hypothesis about how change happens, which links specific actions to desired outcomes. The AFWI catalyzes change by making scientific knowledge about early child and brain development—called the Brain Story—accessible to a wide range of policy-makers, practitioners, and the public. It also engages multi-disciplinary change agents working in numerous sectors and communities to apply Brain Story knowledge to their activities, strategies, and organizing principles.

Having a clearly defined theory of change helps the AFWI to pursue its goals effectively; it also establishes a framework for evaluating the success of its projects and initiatives. 

Catalyzing Change

The AFWI’s strategy is built on mobilizing knowledge—the process of disseminating key scientific information into a form that can be used and applied. This process works in three interdependent phases:

  1. The Initiative shares the Brain Story (an interdisciplinary body of knowledge about early childhood experiences, brain development, epigenetics, intergenerational factors, and outcomes) with individuals in relevant sectors and systems.
  2. These individuals become change agents who apply their new knowledge to their organizations and disseminate it in their spheres of influence.
  3. As organizations begin to shift their cultures, priorities, and practices, change begins to occur in policies, resource allocations, and institutional relationships at the system level.



Mechanisms of Change

The first phase of the AFWI’s strategy has involved bringing people together across sectors to enhance their knowledge about early brain development and lifelong health. The initiative does this by supporting research and hosting presentations, training, and networking opportunities, as well as by disseminating tools and resources and developing new programs. Participants in AFWI programs increase their personal understanding of the science; they also form ongoing collaborative relationships with colleagues and cross-sector allies, as well as with the AFWI itself.

The AFWI’s Symposia series is an example of this strategy in action. From 2010 to 2014, a total of eight Symposia gathered representatives from across sectors and disciplines for a series of expert lectures, workshops, and activities. These events broadened the participants’ scientific knowledge while strengthening their networks and facilitating cross-sector collaboration; the ripple effects of ideas and relationships that began at the Symposia are ongoing.

Changing Individuals

The AFWI engages and builds relationships with strategically selected individuals in order to enhance their scientific knowledge about early brain development, addiction, and mental health. The initiative does this by supporting research and hosting presentations, training, and networking opportunities; it disseminates tools and resources, develops new programs, and organizes cross-sector Symposia.

As individuals increase their understanding of the science of early brain development and its effect on adult health, their perceptions of mental health and addiction change, and they begin to incorporate this fresh perspective into their work, as well as into their personal beliefs and behaviours. They become adept at identifying opportunities to apply this new knowledge to the larger organizations and systems in which they work.

These change agents reach out to other professionals across sectors for a more collaborative relationship. They may alter the content of teaching programs to better reflect current scientific knowledge, or they may provide more thorough information to patients and clients as a result of their learning.

“[The AFWI] put a whole different mix of us at a table together. They had really educated people like neuroscientists mixed with community organizations.… My circle just keeps getting bigger. I’m delighted by the fact that I know people that I never, ever would have known had it not been for my AFWI experiences.”
– Community leader on the opportunities gained by attending an AFWI Symposium

Changing Organizations

As individual change agents begin to share and act on their knowledge of brain development and its influence on mental health and addiction, the organizations where these agents work begin to shift at the strategic level. 

The result is shifts in programming, practice, and even culture that are in line with current science, and are helping to build momentum and shine a brighter spotlight on childhood development, adult addiction, and other mental and physical health outcomes. Organizations are making changes to link services within and across organizations, and to acknowledge the role of community in healthy brain development and adult health. When programs and training are built around the core story, and cross-boundary collaboration is effective, the result is a more complete, accessible environment of support services for clients.

“Since involvement with the AFWI, it’s a family [and community] model, rather than just a model for the children or the school.” 
– Alberta physician on how his organization is modifying a mental health capacity-building project for students in school 

Changing Systems

Systems are made of the intersecting individuals, organizations, and institutions that deliver early childhood development, addiction, and mental health services. People seeking improved health and wellness interact with these systems at various stages.

Successfully catalyzing change at this level is a long game. Policies must be modified or created. Funding must be allocated. Organizations and entire sectors must find new ways to work together. Workforce development must bring the Brain Story knowledge to thousands of professionals in order to increase competency on the front lines. 

Ultimately, the knowledge-mobilization work that begins with individuals is already changing the way the Province of Alberta makes decisions and allocates resources. Change agents who participated in the Symposia process have effected large-scale policy shifts, including the Government of Alberta's revised Addiction & Mental Health Strategy, the Alberta Ministry of Human Services Social Policy Framework for Alberta, and the Alberta Health and Wellness report "Let's Talk About the Early Years."

“At the decision-maker levels, I didn’t have to go through the story because they had it through the efforts of [the AFWI]. We introduced emergency levels for providing [psychosocial] disaster relief and it was just done. I haven’t seen government move like that before. We had the approval on funding in 48 hours.”
– Participant from Human Services on seeking support from the government following the 2013 floods 

Theory of Philanthropy

The AFWI theory of change should be understood in concert with its theory of philanthropy, which specifies how and why the AFWI directs its resources to support specific changes.

Find out more about the AFWI's Theory of Philanthropy. 

Theory of Change 2


Theory of Change 1


Theory of Change 3