Strengthening the ecosystem: How connection with others leads to success in digital

Published on
September 30, 2020
in
Perspectives
David Ainsworth
Catalyst exists to grow the ecosystem of support around charities' digital capabilities. We look at what this means in practice.

If you're a charity, and you're trying to create or improve a service, your first instinct may well be to get your head down and try to fix it yourself. But there are many groups of people who can help solve your problems. And the more you work with those groups, the better your outcomes are likely to be.

As a result, it’s vital that you form connections with lots of different people.

Catalyst is a charitable initiative that emerged from work which identified the need for stronger networks to support digital work in the charity sector. The Catalyst founders had worked intensively to provide advice and support to individual organisations which were developing digital services. Those organisations were progressing along a digital journey, but there was a clear sense that they needed an underlying ecosystem to support them.

What does it mean to have an ecosystem of support? Why do we use a metaphor of nature to describe human behaviours?

We use the metaphor because an ecosystem is a complex, self-sustaining thing, with many different parts to it, all acting smoothly to maintain both growth, and stasis and sustainability while growth takes place. An excellent example is primary rainforest – the most complex ecosystem on earth.

Human societies, when functioning well, can look very like complex natural systems – unsurprisingly, since we ourselves are natural creatures.

But a functioning ecosystem does not emerge overnight. It took generations for primary rainforest to emerge, and if you cut it down, it does not grow back. Instead, you get a much simpler and more basic system – cloud forest.

Similarly, it is not easy for human support systems and networks to come into being. Human societies are similarly complex, and when a new tool like digital technology emerges and changes everything, it will take time for complex systems to emerge around it.

Established activities in the charity sector – finance, fundraising, communications and the like – have extremely well-established ecosystems of support. Much has been written about how to perform well when working in these fields. Consultants and professional services abound and their relationship with the market is well understood. Communities of practice are strong. Events, training and conferences are frequent.

But for the charity digital lead – the keystone species in the ecosystem we are seeing develop – these structures are still in their infancy. It will take a generation or more for them to grow. The ecosystem is emerging but it does not yet exist.

There are of course limitations in the ecosystems metaphor. Unlike with natural ecosystems, human systems can be steered by the conscious and rational choice of the participants. The people operating within the system can choose what connections to make and what organisations to form. The process of growth can be sped up by the work of various actors – funders, large charities, and infrastructure bodies. We came to believe that there should be an organisation dedicated to speeding up such a change – a catalyst. Hence our name.

At Catalyst, our mission is to work with partners across the sector to strengthen existing ecosystems, identify where there are gaps, and encourage rapid new growth.

So what are some of the ways in which we’re trying to coax the ecosystem into maturity?

Connections

The foremost way an ecosystem grows is through connections between the individuals and organisations in it. We’ve found there are many types of connection which are vital for the success of digital in the charity sector.

Internal connections are necessary to make a digital project work. Those leading digital projects need to get buy-in and ensure understanding of their goals from other stakeholders: board, leadership team and delivery staff.

Connection to your service users is essential, too. If you aren’t close to your service users, and you don’t involve them in designing what you offer, and constantly listen to their feedback, your service quite likely won’t meet their needs, and you won’t necessarily know what’s wrong with it.

Connection to support organisations is also vital. Funders, infrastructure bodies, and digital agencies all offer essential resources, whether it’s advice or capacity or cash, to help you grow and learn.

And last but not least, it's vital to form close connections with your peer groups - other charities delivering similar services, or working in a similar location, or tackling similar problems in their own charity.

Information

One of the most important things that people need is information. How do you do good service design? We know that charities like to obtain this information from their peers when possible, but also from external experts. How do we make sure that the information charities need is available to them? What research needs to be done, and what guidance and best practice needs to be shared, in order for charities to have everything they need? And how do charities want that information? In what tone and format, at what frequency, and in what volume?

Training and support

Another thing that’s clear about a digital infrastructure is that charities need external support. The research that led to our soon-to-be-published Digital Journeys report, led by Nissa Ramsay of Think Social Tech, found that as charities developed in digital maturity, mentoring relationships were crucial at a certain stage along the way. All charities consulted as part of the report said that as they began to move beyond foundation stages, a paid-for or voluntary mentor was necessary to help them make progress. This support came from an enormous variety of sources.

Similarly, it’s important to develop more traditional training courses, and to share tools and resources which charities can access. An absolutely core part of digital is the idea of thinking differently – focusing on user needs, setting small goals, constantly iterating, measuring and changing. We recommend starting with our Design Hops course, which introduces the concept of discovery as being at the heart of successful service delivery.

Tools

A lot of digital is about using tools. It’s about finding the right hardware or software to do the job you want. One of our core principles here is that tools need to be reused. It’s not about writing new code, and developing bespoke websites – not always, anyway. Very often it’s about finding simple existing tools, and reusing them.

There are hundreds of thousands of charities in the British Isles, and many more beyond. Whatever it is you want to do for your service users, the chances are someone else has previously wanted to do for theirs. So the chances are a tool already exists which will do what you want. You just need to find it.

Funding

Finally, digital needs funding. Charities need money to access all of this, and it’s vital that funding is delivered in the right way. Funding needs to be flexible, and allow charities to work with the partners they need, and to change direction as projects change. As part of the ecosystem, funders are absolutely essential, not least because they are in a position to support all the other parts to grow. More and more funders see themselves as existing to serve those elsewhere in the network, and facilitating its growth, and as they adopt this position, the system grows more effectively.

So what does this mean?

It’s vital that we recognise that this is work that cannot be done in isolation. Success in building an ecosystem around digital leads at charities requires forming stronger connections and supporting one another. It’s about helping the network understand it is a network.

Forming a network is not all about partnership, or collaboration, or co-working. These can be important parts, but they are hard and purposeful activities, requiring significant effort and contribution.

This is because in any human connection, significant amounts of energy are expended on negotiation, misunderstanding, miscommunication, or even outright conflict. It’s the nature of human beings that we are both cooperating to achieve shared goals and competing for resources. If we put aside our individual preferences and work towards something greater, we both gain and lose something. But we should not expect it to be easy.

Building an ecosystem is about building shared knowledge, shared understanding, and shared communication. It’s about reaching out to the individuals on the ground, who often feel isolated and anything but part of a wider network. It’s also about empowering all of those who help them and support them.

We would love for you to join us, and help make the ecosystem stronger.

Photo by Michel Reyes on Unsplash

This article originally appeared on the Lottery Digital Fund Medium page, here.

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