How Catalyst began
Incubated CAST and funded by a group of private and public foundations and with support from government, we focused our efforts on building collaborative networks, improving digital practice, and identifying tools and services to support the sector’s digital capabilities.
How did the pandemic change things
Part of our mission was to break down the barriers preventing charities from adopting digital. With the onset of lockdown, the element of choice was removed almost overnight: charities had no option but to 'go digital' at an accelerated pace. Interactions with colleagues, staff, volunteers and other stakeholders moved almost wholly online.
In response, we shifted from being an external connector and facilitator to adopt a more hands-on approach providing immediate and urgent support for charities at various stages of their digital journey. At the beginning, this involved gathering evidence on charities’ short-term emergency needs, signposting organisations to existing support resources and identifying gaps. We filled the gaps either by creating new services (such as Dovetail, a directory of agencies working with charities, and fortnightly Digishift Zoom calls) or supporting others' development (such as Digital Candle, a free digital expert advice service, and Design Hops, a free workshop on digital service design).
In August 2020 we worked with The National Lottery Community Fund to launch a new £5 million COVID-19 digital response fund.
Through this fund, we have awarded a total of 223 grants to a variety of charities, supported by over 60 partners. These projects focused on urgent needs for marginalised communities and vulnerable groups hit hardest by the pandemic. To help as many charities in the sector as possible, we are ensuring that all funded projects will be available for others to reuse, through our Service Recipes platform and library of open working assets. In addition, the fund has enabled us to commission the creation of data initiatives (such as the Data Collective), and free design training courses from Beyond, which will help support charities into the future.
So what now?
Catalyst currently exists as an ecology of (somewhat) interconnected support initiatives, networks, community spaces, learning infrastructures and digital commons. Each of these activities is helping transform the sector’s approach to digital, and to supporting communities.
We are continuing our ongoing digital support efforts, while simultaneously taking time to reflect on how we can collectively best serve the needs of civil society. Especially in a context so radically different from when we started. Read our initial thoughts here.
Catalyst’s vision is huge and no one organisation can achieve this alone. Anyone acting towards that vision should feel able to act as (not with) Catalyst. But our research with the network showed that’s not always how it feels at the moment; we know there’s a need for more diverse and equitable representation and power distribution across Catalyst, and for partnership and governance models that better reflect our collective ethos.
In Summer 2021, we’re looking to recruit a small dedicated team to review, renew and transition Catalyst into its next phase. They’ll look to bring coherence and shared understanding to big questions like ‘what and who is Catalyst?’, what kind of field-builder Catalyst should be and how information and value flows through the networks.
Simultaneously, a small number of experimental working groups are currently testing more decentralised forms of organising across Catalyst. These are helping explore key questions around where (and how) we go next.
How can you get involved?
We would love to hear from organisations or individuals keen to help civil society make the best use of digital, data and design. Please find all the details on how to get involved here; we look forward to you becoming a catalyst for change!