In my previous blog post I shared reflections from the attendees of The Catalyst launch about the future of the sector, in this post I’m summarising what I’ve heard from doing a wider set of initial interviews. And as The Catalyst evolves I’ll continue to do these and feed them into our strategic direction – part sense-checking, part intelligence-gathering, part weaving as many people’s ideas as possible into shaping where The Catalyst heads, and in turn the sector. Think of this as “radiating intent”about where we’re heading.
“We have a duty to rise up together. We need a 20 year change programme, orientating around purpose.”— Rachel Coldicutt
What is The Catalyst responding to?
Why is The Catalyst important now? “Things are so fundamentally broken. There is a growing intolerance of the status quo and we shouldn’t rely on politicians to fix this.” During this time of rapid change and rising concerns about things like the climate crisis, inequities, democracy, tribalism and wealth distribution, we do need to re-orientate or newly orientate ourselves around a purpose. What is the world in which we want to live? How can we adapt and cope with the climate crisis?
The social sector’s unique position
“I’m not sure that charities over the last few years have necessarily been at the heart of defining what we want as a society.” — Karl Wilding
The social sector and civil society have a unique role in leading this reorientation. In the interviews I did people spoke about the essence of social sector and civil society organisations.
“There’s something really vital about organisations that don’t have other competing motives as their starting point so it’s not a profit motive or a distribution of income motive or even a growth motive.” — Dan Sutch
The incentives of these organisations and their legal foundations have the potential to root and put emphasis on valuing people and society in any kind of transition. “Charities are organisations that are set up literally by guarantee to start with and focus on the social needs of individuals, families and communities and there aren’t other organisations that do that..” Every other form of organisation has a slightly different starting point, even if they are mission-driven or ethically-driven, the legal boundaries of a charity guarantee a focus of resources and effort on charitable objectives — “…and I think that just puts them in a really unique position.”
“Where are charities ensuring we are creating the world we want? At the moment, the way in which the world is being created is around design decisions about how finance is going to work or how technology is going to work or who it is going to work for and that’s where charities need to be involved in those critical decisions to make sure it works for everyone .” —
The way technology is changing society
When we zoom in on the scale of challenges we face, one area is that of technology — the impact it is having on our lives and the (many yet unknown) ways that it is changing society. Dan Sutch used the example of a high street to describe it.
“In terms of the things we know are changing, the example I think is easy to give is the look of the physical high street and just how much high streets have changed in terms of the shops that are there, the sorts of organisations that are there….they show a shift in the way in which people spend money and look for money, a shift in where people are living, a shift in the way we buy and sell stuff…. in the kinds of brands we recognise. People throw around the idea of digital revolution but genuinely there’s been so much change.” —
And yet in all of this change at a societal level and also the shift in the behaviours, needs, and expectations of individuals how much have charities themselves changed over the last 10–15 years?— “Some charities are evolving really well; many haven’t changed at all.”
The Catalyst is responding to this change — not just at an individual interaction and service level, but in building the capabilities of the sector to foresee and shape the impacts of technology on our lives and society.
The climate and ecological crisis
Lastly, any new initiative in the present needs to focus its effort through a lens of the climate crisis. As Karl says “the whole sector has to do something about that and show its commitment.” He goes on to point out “charities own a lot of buildings — do they have solar panels on the roof, LED lighting, are they doing all they can to get to zero carbon?”
Those are just some initial practical ideas that were shared in the interviews, but there is a whole programme of work that the sector needs to undertake to make sure its taking responsibility for the climate crisis. The Catalyst can help bring coherence and momentum to this.
The culture and practices that The Catalyst can model
The Catalyst affords a way of doing things that are right for the social sector and civil society — as Karl said “It’s not so much about the what but about the how.” And as Rachel said, this is “such an opportunity to do things in a way that puts people first.”
So what might that culture look like and what are those practices?
“Good” digital practices?
There are many ways of working that are now well documented if you are “doing digital” but there is also a growing recognition that a focus on “user needs” is too narrow. As I said in this blog post last year :
“Zooming in on user needs to design around “what’s happening to this individual in this moment” is problematic when you need a broader and aggregate input.”
Rachel talked about user centred-design as needing to move between different scales of focus. “The Jobs To Be Done framework is too tight, it’s not looking at the whole of an individual or a wider context.” As I wrote here, a JTBD is not the same as a good outcome. These are techniques and frameworks designed for growth rather than justice.
“It’s the same as OKR’s” Rachel continues, “they are all about progress and growth, about doubling down on the velocity.”
“This isn’t about going backwards to waterfall project planning, it’s about find new ways to work that are right for the social sector, and it’s about measuring what matters, not what is easy to measure.” — Rachel Coldicutt
The Catalyst can help people have the space, and find and develop expertise for the social sector to think about ways of working that are right for this sector, and that represent the values of the sector.
The need for confidence
In her opening talk at The Catalyst launch, Annika talked about the sector’s timidness — perhaps a result of declining confidence. Rachel talked about people working in the sector having a “nervousness of doing it wrong.”
“It can feel like there’s a culture of “lets all move together incrementally bit by bit”, a need to take everyone with you which can result in a kind of shuffling along. Whereas perhaps we need some people and organisations to leap ahead to know where next is, and then find ways to help people join us.” — Rachel Coldicutt
The Catalyst can be a place for experimentation, for people and organisations to build confidence, and I hope sometimes, a place where people can take great leaps ahead.
A future literacy
“People talk about the current set of institutions on the landscape when they talk about the sector.” — Dan Sutch
There was a recognition in all the interviews of the need for more long-term thinking, future literacy and sensing — ways of keeping slightly ahead of the constant change around us so that the social sector and civil society can empower and inspire, rather than only react and respond. The Catalyst will have a few people (myself included) working on how to keep looking towards the future, whilst some people are heads down in delivery — and we will hope to do this with a network of partners.
Co-operation and alignment
“Can people be more interested in creating change than in their own status?” — Rachel Coldicutt
The whole premise of The Catalyst is built on a belief that we need to work together to create the kind of transition we want and need to see. Karl referenced Alex Evans idea of “the larger us” and Annika talked about how being collective approach in our approach means we can share risk and reduce the risk for one another.
The Catalyst plans to *show* how to work well through a networked approach — where it’s important to put emphasis on collective awareness, cooperation and coordination —sometimes this may evolve into collaboration but that won’t always be necessary.
Modelling new Infrastructure
There is a recognition that the social sector and civil society need new infrastructure (both funders and umbrella bodies) — and infrastructure where there is much more alignment between all the different parts. This would mean each of them being focussed on what they are good at, with a clarity of roles, and building on what each other are doing. We need “infrastructure that is much more progressive” said Annika.
“I think there’s something about the kind of organised and consistent nature of charities, particularly medium to large ones that provide some stability across a civil society, when they are acting well and when they are working against that guarantee that kind of allows other things to organise themselves around. And I think that at the moment charities don’t provide that kind of stability within communities; that’s been replaced by other things or not replaced at all.” —
The work of The Catalyst will help us identify and design for new kinds of infrastructure, alongside strengthening or evolving what already exists.
The culture of closing things down
“We shouldn’t want some organisations to live forever.” — Karl Wilding
The initial focus of The Catalyst was to “strengthen 40,000 charities in the UK” but in interviews people were honest about there being far too many incumbent ways of working (especially in terms of governance) and the model of a charity needing renewal. A first step in renewal is often an honesty about what is no longer working, and The Catalyst can be a space to show how to address that. It reminded me of my provocation for a Farewell Fund.
The opportunity for The Catalyst as a compass to reorientate the sector
“We need new leadership that can make important issues rise to the top.” Rachel Coldicutt
So what does this all mean? And how can we use The Catalyst to really stretch what’s possible and take us into new frames — where digital may be a way into changing or evolving things, but it’s so much more than that?
An emphasis on prevention
And organising around what we want to create rather than organising around what we are against.
“Knowing the problems in the way in which we are organising our communities, or the way in which we organise ourselves, and being part of the vision and the drive to make the place better for us all, whether that’s more cohesive communities or better environmental policies.”
The necessary firefighting and framing of “needs” has meant the sector’s often a long way away from preventative work.
“…. because of so many cuts they are focussing on the more immediate stuff like the frontline crisis rather than early intervention, rather than preventative stuff, but that’s absolutely a role that charities have played for years — informal and formal charities — and it’s certainly something we should be looking to do with The Catalyst.” —
The Catalyst has the opportunity to lay new groundwork, to be regenerative and preventative in how it strengthens and builds things.
A collective intelligence
The wisdom, experience, data, evidence, insights and intuition that exists within the social sector and civil society that can be useful for designing for now and into the future, is phenomenal. However, we are not making the most of this intelligence on any level.
“From a societal point of view social sector organisations have a kind of sensing opportunity to understand where the biggest challenges are across our communities and across people’s lives: where you see particular peaks of demand or where you see the implications of policies, it’s often felt first by charities having to provide, having to step in. And I don’t think we very often see them collectively doing that — making use of a kind of sensing mechanisms for understanding what’s wrong in the way in which we organise communities and society.” —
Through The Catalyst we have the opportunity to build more collective (or connective) tissue, that could make something like this sensing network not only possible, but more effective.
A space to think and dream
“Throughout austerity, it seems that things that have been collectively imagined have come from policy change and financial pressures and technological change rather than being driven by where we want to be from a social conscience perspective.” — Dan Sutch
Linked to the need to build more futures literacy in to the practices of the sector, The Catalyst also has the opportunity to create space for large-scale imagining of what is possible, where we want to head as a sector and what that can look like. Annika also asked “where are those opportunities to have that collective imagining and then collective progress?”
Beyond “charities” — new models
Perhaps too, charities can only ever do so much. Great work like Tessy Britton’s already highlights some of what’s problematic and paternalistic about the “charity” model.
“The Catalyst starts with an assumption that charities have something unique to offer because historically they have — they’ve played a role that has brought together communities for people in need and that they are a really important set of organisations that need strengthening so that they can perform that role. But through this work we will find some limitations of charities, in the way in which they can organise themselves, the way in which they can do stuff, the way in which they’re financed — all that kind of stuff. And that might mean that we find the limitations of charities and need to start working with other sorts of organisations or other sorts of collectives and groups, because they provide the ways of responding and working that fills the gap that charities can no longer fill.” —
The Catalyst has a real opportunity to help charities and civil society refigure out what their role, and its role, should be.
Regeneration not growth
“This is an opportunity to not be growth orientated, to look away from Silicon Valley where growth or ubiquity is always the indicator of quality. Growth is often explicitly unjust. Justice and growth don’t go together .” — Rachel Coldicutt
The economy isn’t working for most people and there is already great work being done by people like Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazucatto, Open Systems Lab and Dark Matter Labs to imagine alternatives to our economic system. The Catalyst and the social sector have the opportunity to be a test bed for these alternatives as they emerge, and to shape them too. With digital in particular the winner often takes all and increasingly goods and services are being eaten by software and globalisation. As Rachel said “rather than assuming that anything that comes out of business is good and look to be quicker or more effective, try putting justice or care at the centre.” Annika used an analogy of the earth — that we need to be farming not building buildings.
A renewed relevance
“If people don’t get purpose from work and if there is less work, where will people get a sense of purpose from? What role can social action or involvement in their community have here? “— Karl Wilding
The Catalyst is also starting on its journey at a time when things like the future of work and automaton are in the headlines every other day. Karl believes this is a real opportunity for the social sector and civil society to step up. As we potentially move to a 3 day or 4 day week there may be a new role for the sector.
“Can we make it as easy as possible for people to do things together that give them meaning?”
Strengthening the sector
“What is our role as actors in a more challenging conversation about digital and its role in our lives?” – Karl Wilding
In every interview people spoke about The Catalyst having a role in strengthening the sector, especially to develop more skills in relation to understanding the second and third order consequences of technology.
“When we think about how decisions are now being made more and more based on algorithmically informed decisions, around disability allowance, around who’s allowed into the country, around who’s allowed other sorts of allowances, if organisations don’t understand how those decisions are made there’s a massive implication for them as an advocacy-based organisation.”
The social sector should be involved in making those decisions not just responding to the implications of them.
“It’s those kinds of shifts in patterns within governments, within decision makers, within the commercial sector that if the charities don’t understand, they cannot support those who are most vulnerable, they can’t advocate; they can’t figure out the kind of ways in which they can best champion their needs. And it’s not like the high street where things just seemed to evolve over time, that drop off is a cliff edge where you go from one month of 100% turnovers to the next month, zero. And it’s those kinds of changes that keep me up at night.”
The Catalyst has an opportunity to ensure the social sector and civil society are not only present in these decisions but are the dominant voice.
Thank you to Rachel Coldicutt, Karl Wilding and Co-founders of The Catalyst Annika Small and Dan Sutch for these initial conversations. Theres a *lot* here and we will be focussing in further on some of these thoughts and ideas as The Catalyst evolves, and speaking to more people too.